Budget troubles make Philadelphia schools turn to charters for ‘turnarounds’

The School Reform Commission will hand over four Philadelphia schools to charter operators Thursday. It’s part of the district’s Renaissance program for turning around failing schools. New research says that charters aren’t the only way to improve schools, but district officials say that, for now, it’s the only approach they can afford.

Every morning when it’s time for school, Susan Velez prepares for the battle. Her daughter is no fan of Edmunds Elementary.

“In the beginning, she wanted to be an example … and that was her idea, to be an example, because that’s what we instilled in her,” said Velez. “But now, she’s just frustrated because she doesn’t feel she’s in a learning environment.”

Velez blames pervasive discipline problems at Edmunds for her daughter’s unhappiness. But she hopes improvements are on the way.

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Edmunds, in Northeast Philadelphia, is one of four failing schools slated to be handed over to charter operators this year. Velez says she’s sorry that many good teachers probably will leave. But, given the state of the school, she supports the charter plan.

“My daughter has a very good teacher. She’s remarkable. But she’s not given the resources she needs to be a good teacher,” said Velez.

In the past, the district has turned around some schools on its own by giving them extra resources, while turning other struggling schools to charters. But this year, all the Renaissance turnarounds are being handled by charter operators. That’s despite the fact that an independent analysis by the nonprofit Research for Action found equally promising gains in both kinds of schools.

RFA found that during the first year of the Renaissance program, academics and attendance improved at almost the same rate in every school, regardless of who ran it. Researcher Michael Norton called those results promising, but says that what’s behind them remains unclear.

“One year does not make a trend. Two years does not even make a trend,” said Norton. “We really need to be able to follow these initiatives for multiple years to understand whether the results experienced in the first year are simply the result of enthusiasm around the start of a new initiative, or whether the policies and practices are actually creating the conditions to support high-achieving schools.”

RFA’s research raises a number of new questions. One is, what exactly were the charter schools doing to get their good results?

RFA president Kate Shaw says she doesn’t know, since the charters provided researchers very little access to their day-to-day doings.

“I understand that it’s difficult to let researchers into schools. But I’m hoping that these initial positive results will convince them that it would be a nice idea to perhaps let us in to see how they’re doing the good work that they’re doing,” said Shaw.

Another question: Could the district-run turnarounds, known as “Promise Academies,” continue to do as well as charter schools? There’s no way to know, because the cash-strapped district no longer provides the Promise Academies with many of the extra resources they once got. That leaves people such as Peter Burnham wondering what might have been.

“The half-full side of it is that something positive is happening in the schools that were studied,” said Burnham. The “other side, the glass half empty, is that what was studied isn’t in existence anymore. It’s changed.”

Burnham is a longtime educator and a member of the Accountability Review Council, an independent oversight board created in 2001. He sees much that’s positive in both charter and district-run Renaissance schools. But, he says, in the long run, turnarounds require consistency, and that’s exactly what the Promise Academies didn’t get.

“Teachers have said, ‘Look, whatever you do, change is important, we need to help these kids, just be consistent with it. Let’s let it evolve. Let me get used to it, let me develop the lesson plans that will allow this to translate into action for these kids,’ instead of just changing it next year when a new leader comes in,” said Burnham.

For now, turning a school around means turning it over to a charter. School Reform Commission member Feather Houstoun says the district remains committed to improving its own schools. But she says that, at the moment, faced with a budget shortfall of nearly $200 million, the district has little to invest.

“Leadership and teamwork at an individual school level can be transformational. We know it. We’ve seen it,” Houstoun said. “But we know that talent has to be identified, recruited and supported, and that is a really tough, tough task.”

Back at Edmunds Elementary, Susan Velez is cautiously optimistic. She’s been impressed by most of the charters competing for her daughter’s school. But she’s also frustrated that the situation has come to this. She still doesn’t think of Edmunds as a failing school. She thinks of it as a school that’s been failed by the district.

“The district has failed the teachers, it has failed the schools, it has failed the children … failed to do what our tax dollars pay them to do,” said Velez.

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