Gaining programs, losing a principal at Pennell Elementary

To Cintesa McQuay, the trade-off doesn’t seem entirely fair: for Pennell Elementary to get more funding, principal Gina Steiner has to go.

“The principal’s the bomb,” said McQuay, the parent of two Pennell students. “She’ll talk to you. Whatever it is, she’ll work it out. She knows every kid by their name – I don’t know how she does it. They really don’t know what they’re losing.”

McQuay was one of about forty parents and teachers who gathered Tuesday evening at Pennell – a K-6 school of about 430 students in Philadelphia’s Ogontz neighborhood, not far from Central High – to hear district officials explain its future as a Renaissance school.

The Renaissance program provides low-performing schools with extra financial support and programming.  In exchange, Renaissance schools must replace at least half of their staff, as well as any principal who has been at the school for more than two years.

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A difficult goodbye

Thus, after six years leading Pennell, and despite what parents called significant improvements in the school’s climate and academics, Steiner’s time is up.

District officials say they have no flexibility in the matter. They are trying to keep Pennell and other Renaissance schools eligible for future federal school turnaround grants, which require this kind of staff shakeup.

But there’s no guarantee that the district will win those funds, just as there’s no guarantee that the next Pennell administration will be better than Steiner’s. And while parents at Tuesday’s meeting said they’re excited about the prospect of more programming for Pennell students, they worry about the leadership they’ll be losing.

“I’ve been around other schools, and seen inside, and I can honestly say that here they’ve done a real turnaround,” said Sharon Parker, parent of two Pennell students. “Ms. Steiner is the best.”

Tara Hill, parent of three Pennell students, agreed. “Ms. Steiner has been excellent,” said Hill. “I’m a mother. When I leave my children at the front door, I feel comfortable leaving with her, because she has that same motherly love… She’s genuinely concerned about our children, academically and on a personal level. I’m comfortable, and I’m telling you, I haven’t been comfortable at other schools in the Philadelphia School District.”


Many past improvements

Steiner, a 25-year district veteran who has worked as a secretary, teacher and administrator, called the support voiced at Tuesday’s meeting “a pleasant surprise.” When she arrived at Pennell, she said, the academic cupboard was close to bare.

“There was no music program, no art program,” said Steiner. “Reading and math scores needed to go up, and we worked on that from the beginning, but we also worked on educating the whole child.”

Steiner used what budget flexibility she had (including funds provided as part of the district’s “empowerment” program) to diversify Pennell’s curriculum. Two years ago, she added art classes; last year, she added vocal music, and this year an instrumental program. The school started using the so-called “positive behavior support” process to encourage good conduct, along with a structured recess program and other initiatives designed to improve the overall climate. She and her deputy administrators tried to raise expectations for Pennell’s staff, and make sure they were “putting the right people in the right jobs,” Steiner said.

“I have five children of my own,” said Steiner. “They all graduated from Philadelphia public schools, and they all had wonderful educational opportunities. I wanted [Pennell students] to have what my children had.”

McQuay says Steiner got results. “When my daughter was here [ten years ago], I couldn’t get her to read – I had to pay for private tutoring,” she said. “When my son came – it’s been totally different. My son’s reading chapter books, and he’s only eight years old. My son comes home and does his homework by himself. Once I said, ‘Son, this math problem is wrong,’ and he said, ‘Mom, you can’t change it for me –  my teacher needs to know what I don’t know.’”


Test scores still lagged

But district data show that Pennell’s state test scores still lag well behind district averages. After several years of improvement, last year, most of Pennell’s PSSA scores either held steady or declined.  District officials say that’s no reflection on Steiner and her staff – they say the problem is that students still don’t have all the academic support they need, a problem only Renaissance funds can address.

“Parents and staff have been doing a lot to support this school, but sometimes you can’t do it alone,” deputy superintendent Francisco Duran told the parents gathered at Pennell. “We don’t think one school does better than another because of the school itself. We think about the opportunity gap.”

To close that gap, Pennell will get an infusion of Renaissance programming: longer school days, optional Saturday and summer classes, an increased focus on college preparation – and possibly, a library.


Cautious optimism

Asked about results, Duran told parents that so far, data from past Renaissance schools is limited but promising. Last year, in the Renaissance program’s first round, two elementary schools (Ethel Allen and Dunbar,  both in North Philadelphia) were subjected to the same process Pennell faces now. Those schools have yet to take the state tests that will determine their academic progress, but Duran said that an early round of predictive testing suggests that their next set of PSSA scores will be “much, much higher.”

And Duran promised that the new programs will be protected from budget cuts as much as is possible. “You are a priority – and you will be the last to see any cuts,” he said.

However, when it comes to funding, nothing is certain, Duran said. While next year’s budget is still incomplete, the district thinks it will have the funds it needs to support Renaissance programming. Funding for future years will depend on many factors, including the availability of federal school turnaround grants. Reassigning longtime administrators like Steiner is part of the larger strategy of keeping Renaissance schools eligible for those funds, he said.

Parents like Hill are cautiously optimistic about the expanded Renaissance programming. “I’m not against the program at all,” she said. “My children already attended summer school, and they didn’t want to drop out. They loved the classes. So I’m looking forward to the enrichment programs.”

And while it was clear from Tuesday’s meeting that Steiner had won many parents’ hearts, it was also clear that they see room for improvement at the school, citing crowded classrooms, inexperienced substitute teachers, and a general shortage of resources. 

“It does sound like it’s going to be better,” said McQuay. “I just hope we get a lot of good teachers.”


To the next level

As the meeting wrapped up, Steiner thanked the parents for their support, but said that a brighter future awaited Pennell.

“Under this model, I’m not allowed to stay. I’m not leaving you because I want to,” she said. “When the budget is so difficult, and so many schools are losing funding – if [getting more funding] means me leaving, then I am happy to go, because you will have programs that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Later, asked how it felt to be forced out in order to keep Pennell eligible for federal grants that may or may not materialize, Steiner paused a long moment. “It’s hard,” she said. “But I really truly believe it’s the right thing. It’s like raising your children – you raise them, and you hand them off. It’s time. It’s someone else’s turn to take it to the next level.”

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