Promise Academy overhaul off the table for Pennell

Officials with Pennell Elementary said this week that the Philadelphia public school will still strive to function like a Promise Academy, despite being dropped from the Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative. While the School Reform Commission still has to approve the change, district officials acknowledge that the measure will likely be approved for the coming school year.

In an effort to close a lingering $35 million budget gap, the School District last week announced that eight of the 11 low-performing schools slated for additional funding and a staff shakeup would remain traditional schools during the 2011-2012 school year.

“The District recognizes the success of the Promise Academy model and hopes to be able to provide the more concentrated supports offered in the structure to students at the other eight schools next year,” reads a letter sent to parents August 3.

Reducing the number of Promise Academies, along with other program cuts, is expected to save the District $17.7 million.  Additional cuts helped fill the $35 million hole and close the $600 million-plus gap the District was facing overall.

At the beginning of the year Pennell was slated for changes under the district’s Renaissance Schools initiative. As a Promise Academy, the Ogontz-based school would have received approximately $1 million in additional resources, according to school district officials. The school day and year would have been extended and at least half of the school’s staff would have been replaced. 

Until early August it had been operating under that assumption; replacing the principal, and transferring teachers to make room for new hires.  Pennell will now wait for that overhaul along with Smith, Alcorn, W.D. Kelley and Barry elementary schools and Fitzsimons, South Philadelphia and Sayre high schools.

Only Germantown, Martin Luther King and West Philadelphia high schools will initiate their Promise Academy paths come September.

In the meantime, incoming Pennell Principal Jason Harris said he will follow the Promise Academy model as closely as he can.

“It’s no different from good practice,” said Harris. “It’s about stepping up everything.”

“It doesn’t take money to really make sure you’re engaging our children. It doesn’t take money to make sure that you’re holding high expectations,” he said.

The new school head did acknowledge that the lack of additional funds will put “a damper” on his efforts to improve the struggling school. Harris specifically lamented the loss of extended schools days and Saturday classes.

“That will be a little bit of a hindrance,” he said. “But you know we’ll work around those things,” said Harris.

Harris will also have to achieve his goals with a teaching staff that will now likely be comprised of far fewer fresh faces.

Under the Aug. 4 agreement between the School District and PFT, all outside teachers who were hired to work at Pennell, and the other former Promise Academies, will return to their previous teaching assignments.

Teachers asked to leave Pennell will return, according to the same agreement.

Those teachers, however, can stay in their new schools as a “volunteer transfer”. Some of the outside hires may also end up staying at Pennell if there’s room.

It’s still unclear who will be part of the Pennell’s teaching staff during the upcoming school year. Harris hopes to sure up those decisions by the end of the week.

Harris will meet Wednesday night with Pennell parents to bring the post-Promise Academy picture into focus. A number of them, he said, will likely be disappointed by the details.

” To hear that it won’t happen, it feels like a broken promise,” said Harris. ” And certainly children who come from inner city environments don’t need any more promises broken for them.”

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