Pennell parents and administrators discuss loss of Promise Academy

For Felicia Roche, Pennell Elementary School’s likely future as an aborted Promise Academy is particularly painful.

As a member of Pennell’s School Advisory Council, Roche was deeply invested and optimistic about the School District’s plan to turnaround the low-performing school with additional funding and a newly shaped staff.

So much so that she gave away a coveted slot at a charter school that was offered to her daughter.

“I decided to keep her here because I was excited about the changes,” said Roche.

Now the young mother is questioning her decision as parents and administrators face what will likely be the abrupt end to Pennell’s inclusion in the district’s Renaissance Schools Initiative.

” It’s really difficult for me to understand why we were kind of given the OK and told our kids and got them excited about these types of things just to turn around and tell them that ‘sorry, everything that we just promised you is going to be gone,” said Roche.

“I was sold something that isn’t happening,” she said.

Roche shared those sentiments after a Wednesday night meeting at Pennell.  The meeting was called to discuss the details of the School District’s proposal and what it’ll mean if the School Reform Commission accepts the plan later this month.

The School District wants to drop eight of the 11 schools slated to become Promise Academies for the 2011-2012 school year. District officials estimate that the move, coupled with other program cuts, will save $17.7 million – more than half of a $35 million budget hole still lingering after the state budget was approved. The changes would also help to seal the $600 million-plus gap the district is currently facing.

As a Promise Academy, Pennell was slated to receive approximately $1 million in additional funding for enrichment programs such as foreign language classes and a longer school day and year, among other things, according to School District officials.

If  the cuts take effect, Pennell will wait for an overhaul with Smith, Alcorn, W.D. Kelley and Barry elementary schools and Fitzsimons, South Philadelphia and Sayre high schools.

Germantown, Martin Luther King and West Philadelphia high schools will become Promise Academies starting in September.

Incoming Principal Jason Harris didn’t mince words Wednesday when laying out the proposed cuts.

“Everything that was associated in terms of the money and budget has changed,” said Harris, who previously headed schools in Delaware County.

Still, Harris worked to assure the assembled parents and student that they would see positive change at Pennell as long as staff and families come together to support and engage the school’s students.

“All of us have to really work together to make sure that we are keeping our children first in everything that we do so that we can push Pennell where it needs to go,” he said.

Harris pointed out to parents and students that the K-6 school has some work to do.

Going into this school year, Harris said only 30 percent of Pennell students are reading at grade level and only 50 percent are at grade level for math.

State standards require that at least 72 percent of students be proficient in reading and 67 percent in math, he said.

The new school head said Pennell can achieve those benchmarks with or without Promise Academy funding.

“It takes will. It takes skill. It takes expertise. It takes commitment,” said Harris. He said particular attention will be paid to making higher education a goal for each student.

Following the half-hour presentation, Harris opened up the floor for questions. A number of them focused on staffing.

One parent asked Harris if he knew which teachers would be working at Pennell during the upcoming school year. He didn’t.

“I have guesses for a few people that are coming back, but I don’t have a solid answer,” he said.

Under the Promise Academy model, at least half of the school’s staff must be replaced, including principals that have been around for more than two years. As a result, Pennell had already transferred teachers and made new hires.

Now that Pennell will likely remain a traditional school, it’s unclear how many of its transferred teachers will return.

Under an agreement reached between the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, all former Pennell teachers will return to the school unless those teachers want to stay on at their new school as a “volunteer transfer”.

Likewise, all outside hires will return to their former assignments unless there is room at Pennell after its budget is finalized.

If the Promise Academy cuts are approved, it’s most likely Pennell’s teaching staff will be largely comprised of old, instead of fresh faces.

Another parent asked Harris how he plans on implementing change with a staff that may have some “ineffective” members.

The new principal said he’s not “a stranger” to dealing with problem staff and that he and members of his administration will routinely sit-in on classrooms to ensure the curriculum is being implemented.

Harris, however, said he doesn’t expect to see many uncommitted teachers.

“I really feel that the people that are going to come back to our school are really going to be committed because they won’t have a choice,” he said.

“It’s about children,” said Harris. “It’s not about anybody else.”

The first day of classes for Philadelphia public schools is Sept. 6.

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