Broken promise? School turnaround model in limbo amid district funding crisis

Posted: June 13, 2014

DURING ASHNA Blackston's sophomore year at Martin Luther King High in East Germantown, she got out of school later than her peers at other schools. For many teenagers, it would've been a nuisance, but the extra time allowed Blackston to get tutoring, dig into her studies and develop a closer relationship with her teachers.

"You could learn more in the classes. We had more time for the teachers to work with us one-on-one," recalled Blackston, now a senior. "It was helpful."

King was part of the second set of Promise Academies - the district's turnaround model ushered in under the late Arlene Ackerman's Renaissance Schools Initiative to turn around failing schools. Promise Academies were targeted for additional resources and called for changes to at least 50 percent of the staff. They received additional money for professional development, a longer school day, additional teachers and staff support.

But since 2011, King and the other Promise Academies have seen those "extras" disappear as a result of budget cuts, leaving their futures less certain, particularly in light of the district's $216 million deficit for next year.

"That's really frustrating. To know that each year lends to the next," said King principal William Wade, who arrived in the school's first year under the initiative after leaving Vaux High School, another Promise Academy in North Philadelphia.

"You're impacted tremendously the next year," he said, "and the baseline you set [in terms of achievement] is kind of out the window because a new one is going to be created."

In the first year of Promise Academies, in 2010-11, the district spent $5.9 million for six schools, or almost $1 million per school. That's down to $7.1 million for 10 schools this year, or about $710,000 per school.

Strawberry Mansion High and Edison High, which are in the planning stages, will become Promise Academies in September, bringing the total number to 12.

The loss in funds means students no longer receive the extra hour of instruction three days a week, or the enrichment period, which included tutoring or extracurricular activities that helped motivate some students. Teachers have gone from having professional development every week to a few days a year, and layoffs have increased class sizes.

As an example of the casualties, West Philadelphia High School will lose an instructional music teacher, a dance teacher, and a career and technical-education teacher next school year because it can no longer afford to keep them, principal Mary Dean said.

"What we said we were going to do for Promise Academies and the model for turnaround, in its inception, it was going well," Dean said. "But because of the severe budget cuts across the board, we tend to experience those cuts a little deeper" because we work with a disadvantaged population.

Excited about the idea

Early reviews of the first six Promise Academies in 2010-11 were encouraging. Those schools - along with seven schools whose management was turned over to charter operators - "significantly outperformed" comparison schools in attendance and student achievement, according to a 2012 report from Research for Action, a locally based nonprofit focused on education.

"I thought that [report] was very positive, and I was very anxious for the program to continue and to expand and we would keep studying what the results were year after year," said Joseph Dworetzky, a former member of the School Reform Commission. "Then, we got, unfortunately, into the budget [crisis]."

In 2011-12, the second year of the Renaissance Schools Initiative, more schools were added to the program, but a reduction in funding led to widespread layoffs of teachers and central-office staff who oversaw them. The high turnover went all the way to the top, with Ackerman leaving the district in August 2011.

Despite the turnover and programmatic reductions, principals and teachers said the new Promise Academies got an initial boost in resources, which generated excitement in many of the underachieving schools.

"The first day of the Promise Academy, students were here on time, they were in uniform, they were trying to figure out how to tie their tie," said Amanda Johnson Caucci, an art teacher at King. "They were real excited about the idea of a school that was going to really educate them. And over time, we just realized we were facing the same problems that we'd faced before."

Losing the battle

The earliest set of Promise Academies are not on track to achieve the desired increases in reading and math scores in five to six years, according to a district progress report from December. The report concluded that most of them have not shown significant change in school climate - the number of serious incidents reported - which researchers say usually precedes the academic gains.

And since the program began, three Promise Academy high schools - Vaux, University City and Germantown - have closed along with dozens of other schools to reduce the number of underutilized buildings.

All of that is frustrating for supporters of the Promise Academy model, who say the schools have suffered largely due to poor implementation and the reduction in resources, something the district has acknowledged.

"The results are not going to be reliable to answering the question that we began with," Dworetzky said. "I don't think that the result shows a district turnaround model can't be successful."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, agreed that the lack of funding has basically torpedoed the experiment.

"The fact is money matters when it comes to educating children, and especially children who haven't had [certain] advantages," Jordan said. "They really were not funded long enough for anyone to be able to make a sound judgment based on data."

Nowhere to go but up

Despite the program's struggles, the district said it will consider additional Promise Academies in the future. Whether the current Promise Academies will have their resources restored, however, remains to be seen.

Wade said his staff is doing its best to "stay afloat" until those resources come back, despite growing pessimism.

"We'll see what happens. I have a feeling it's going to turn around - the funding situation," he said. "I'm just looking at some patterns, things I've been studying in the state. You can't cut us anymore. We have to go up."


On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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