Two North Philly grade schools to undergo massive staffing changes in hopes of ‘turnaround’

    Two elementary schools in North Philadelphia will undergo massive staffing changes before the 2014-15 school year in an attempt to transform school culture and student performance.

    Blaine Elementary in Strawberry Mansion and W.D. Kelley Elementary in Brewerytown have been selected for what the Philadelphia School District is calling a “district-led renaissance turnaround.”

    Teachers at both schools must reapply for their jobs. At least 50 percent of the teaching staff at each school won’t be recalled.

    The move is designed to give increased flexibility to the schools’ principals.

    “We basically believe in the autonomy of the principals and the school design teams to develop the transformation plan that they think is going to work best given the students that are in their buildings,” said Paul Kihn, assistant district superintendent.

    Kihn rejected the view that this move would cause more tumult and upheaval to an increasingly fragile system.

    “We think it’s a net benefit,” he said, “and parents who have been part of the conversation in these school communities are excited.”

    The district has the right to exercise this provision based on its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; it did not require any new action by the School Reform Commission.

    “This is the exact provision that we’ve used for the promise academies,” said Kihn.

    This model differs from that one, he said, in that promise academies were a top-down, centrally designed initiative. For this turnaround plan, the district has handed over authority to school leaders.

    “We are placing a very high degree of confidence in these principals and their leadership teams,” said Kihn. “We are not imposing a transformation model in these cases, but we are allowing it to be designed at a school level.”

    PFT president Jerry Jordan, who said he doesn’t believe the plan will improve school performance, likens the plan to “just moving the chairs around.”

    “There is no evidence that by changing the staff at either of those schools that the teachers are going to be able to turn around the building just because the principal brings in a new team,” said Jordan.

    In his view, teachers at Kelley and Blaine schools are very committed, and “what they need are the tools in order to do their job and the supports that teachers in many other districts have.”

    Design year

    This initiative has been under way since last summer, when Blaine and Kelley both received $1.5 million in grant funding from the Philadelphia School Partnership “to support the development of a school turnaround model.”

    After the district shuttered 24 schools last spring, Kelley received 98 students and Blaine received 69 students. The schools had been expecting 180 and 160 students respectively.

    In the run-up to the closings, the district approached PSP about distributing grants to a few of its receiving schools. PSP agreed on the condition that turnaround provisions would occur.

    The district then identified “eight to 10” receiving schools with strong leaders. PSP interviewed each and encouraged some to apply for the funding.

    “Ultimately, these two were the ones that rose to the top,” said PSP executive director Mark Gleason.

    Blaine’s principal, Gianeen Powell, joined the district in 1999 and has been at Blaine since July 2008.

    W. D. Kelley’s principal, Amelia Coleman, joined the district in 1999, and left for three years before returning as principal of Kelley in August 2010.

    At the time of the announcement, Superintendent William Hite called the grant “a double win” for the district by rewarding schools “driving toward dramatically better student outcomes” and steering more resources “to students impacted by school closings.”

    Kihn said the PSP funding didn’t “come with any strings attached to it.”

    So far, about 10 percent of the grant funding has been dispersed to the schools. PSP will decide exactly how and when to provide the rest of the money when it sees the schools’ full turnaround plans in “three or four weeks.”

    Gleason lauded the progress made so far by principals Powell and Coleman.

    “This process is about ensuring that you have a team in the schools that’s all rolling in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not about getting rid of the ‘bad’ teachers.”

    Massive change

    Blaine principal Powell called the initiative “the most exciting thing in my career.”

    Powell said she’s been working with a team of seven teachers who agree that massive staffing changes are necessary to raise standards at the school.

    “Basically, we’re just trying to make sure that teachers are on board with what we’re trying to do,” she said. “Our children deserve it.”

    Powell, who cited as problematic the reluctance of some staffers to use technology in the classroom, said she sees the project-based learning done at schools such as Science Leadership Academy and The Workshop School as models she’s hoping to emulate.

    Hoping to achieve 16 percent gains in student proficiency per year, Powell said she believes she can move her school’s reading proficiency from the 30th percentile to the 80th percentile in a matter of years.

    W.D. Kelley principal Coleman echoed those high expectations.

    “Not enough of our students have had the opportunity to dream big and change the world,” she said. Like Powell, Coleman said massive staff turnover was necessary for change.

    “We’ve tried to do it over the years with the existing staff,” Coleman said, “and it hasn’t happened for the children, and the years are going by …”

    Both leadership teams have visited multiple turnaround models in Philadelphia and in cities across the country.

    The principals jointly agreed to hire the school turnaround firm Public Impact as consultants.

    Open questions

    Kihn said many specifics – such as if the schools will extend the day, week or year – are not yet known because they’re “still in the middle of their design year.”

    If Powell and Coleman advocate for changes that would have implications to the district’s budget or its labor contracts, “that’s something we’d have to come back to the table to discuss,” said Kihn. “A lot is contingent on what happens with our current PFT negotiations.”

    Under the existing PFT contract that expired in August, if teachers were to work a longer day or year, the district must pay them more.

    The district expects that teachers who aren’t rehired at Blaine and Kelley will end up elsewhere in the district.

    Kihn dismissed PFT president Jordan’s view that this was “just moving chairs around.”

    “Doing school turnarounds is actually something quite different from doing the work in a well-performing school,” said Kihn. “We are operating in a way that we hope is respectful to the professionals in our schools, but also takes account of the needs of students and families.”

    Of the teachers who will not be rehired, Kihn said, “Are we able to guarantee them a perfect job to fit their skill set next year? The answer to that is unfortunately, ‘No.'”

    Renaissance charters on the horizon?

    The district has also been considering converting one or two more of its “chronically low performing” schools to renaissance charters.

    That’s still the district’s intent, but “essentially time is running out,” said Kihn. “We’d have to start within the next one to two weeks.”

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