Philly announces fate of 11 turnaround schools

Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia was one of 11 low-performing schools targeted for intervention. (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia was one of 11 low-performing schools targeted for intervention. (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

The School District of Philadelphia Wednesday released its long-awaited plans for 11 low-performing schools designated this year for extreme makeovers, and it appears that the interventions will be less disruptive than some school communities initially feared.

Four among the 11, all high schools, will see little change until a more detailed plan is developed for all the neighborhood high schools in the city. They are Kensington Health Sciences Academy, Fels, Ben Franklin, and Overbrook.

The other seven schools will receive up to $1 million each to shore up their academic programs.

In this group, three schools Blankenburg, Heston, and John Marshall elementaries will enter the district’s Turnaround Network. This means the principal and teachers will be required to reapply for their jobs, and changes will involve replacing at least 20 percent of the faculty. 

That turnover rate is down from years’ past, when the district required schools in its Turnaround Network to replace at least half of their staff.

“We heard a lot of feedback last year and people were less focused on the turnaround effort and more focused on the cap to the number of individuals who could return,” said Superintendent William Hite, suggesting that concern over upending staff had sometimes superseded more meaningful work on school improvement.

Four other schools targeted for the biggest changes will implement school improvement strategies developed by each community over the past several months.

At two of these schools–Bartram High and McDaniel–faculty will have to reapply for their jobs. At the other two–Harding Middle and Hartranft–there will be no required staff turnover.

Bartram will not be able to rehire more than 50 percent of its faculty because the school is receiving a federal school improvement grant that comes with stipulations.

Hite noted that, although only three schools will enter the Turnaround Network next school year, Bartram and McDaniel “will feel like turnaround” schools because of their commitment to hire new faculty.

LaChante Collier-Bacon, principal of McDaniel, said that she felt that some staff replacement would be necessary to improve her school.

“Changing staff will make a big difference,” she said. “I’m thinking skill vs. will, some teachers are a little more inclined to go along with coaching and be trained to learn new methodology. We’re seeking a paradigm shift.”

McDaniel plans to hire Jounce Partners, a consulting firm that has mostly worked with charter schools, on teacher development. It will start with a summer institute for teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate, visit other’ classrooms, get help through teacher coaching, and make frequent use of data.

“Teachers will be held to higher expectations, collaborate with and get feedback from peers, and share various strategies,” she said. “Tools and techniques for effective instruction in the classroom will focus on excellence from day one.”

McDaniel said her school also has an attendance problem, and she said that “more rigorous and engaged instruction” should help improve that. The school will also hire a parent ombudsman to “lead an effort for personal connection with families to deal with their challenges,” Collier-Bacon said. The ombudsman will personally go into the community and lead an attendance committee that includes teachers, the counselor and the school nurse.

Nine of the 11 schools submitted improvement strategies, but the district only deemed four of those, including McDaniel’s, robust enough to approve.

Being selective

Given the financial commitment required for school turnaround, the district felt it could not support interventions at more than seven schools.

The interventions in these schools are based on the idea that it is possible to “turn around” low-performing schools, often by replacing personnel in the building, investing more resources, coming up with different instructional strategies, or a combination of all these things. It was promoted by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during the Obama administration and supported by federal incentive grants.

The strategy has been eagerly embraced by Philadelphia, first under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and now under Hite. The most drastic intervention is closing a school altogether, followed by turning the school over to outside management, usually a charter organization, and replacing the principal and half the staff. The least drastic changes involved giving the school more resources and developing a new plan of action.

Hite, Philadelphia’s school superintendent, is using the tool as part of his strategy of “creating great schools close to where children live.”

In the past, the district has employed all these methods, especially charter conversions; 21 former District schools are now charters due to this program, called the Renaissance Schools Initiative. Last year, two schools were converted to charters. The district is currently analyzing its Renaissance program and opted not to expand it while the initiative was under review.

A recently released federal analysis of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program nationally found that overall, the program didn’t improve student achievement or life outcomes. Hite, however, thinks the turnaround framework still holds promise if done right.

“If executed well it gives you an opportunity to create the conditions to begin improving instruction,” Hite said. “And I think that’s the important part. It has to yield something that’s different in the classroom.”

The superintendent argues that too much of the conversation on turnaround schools focuses on the “criteria,” such as staff turnover or charter conversion. That fixation saps energy from what he considers the vital work: improving instruction, using data to guide decisions, and bolstering school leadership teams.

“A lot people say, well, we checked all of the criteria so we’re doing turnaround when all you were really doing was reconstituting staff or handing schools over or using a contract provider,” Hite said. “They were not focused on the experience, improving the experiences children are having in classrooms. And I think that’s the distinction of the work we’re trying to do here in Philadelphia.”

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