Universal is one laggard among first batch of ‘Renaissance’ charters in Philly

Philadelphia’s independent Renaissance school operators are bringing families back to struggling neighborhood public schools that they have “turned around” — with one notable exception.

Universal Companies, the city’s second largest manager of Renaissance charter schools, is lagging behind its targets for serving students from the surrounding community at the majority of its schools.

Universal-Daroff Elementary in West Philadelphia, for example, now enrolls about 54 percent of the public school students who live in the school’s catchment area. Preliminary data indicate that Daroff is about 19 percentage points below its 2013 target for neighborhood student enrollment.

When Daroff was managed by the district, the school served 59 percent of those students.

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Unlike regular charter schools, which can draw from all over the city, Philadelphia’s 17 Renaissance charters must first enroll students from defined attendance zones.

The schools face sanctions, including possible revocation of their charters, if they don’t meet by the end of their third year specific targets relating to student enrollment, academic performance, and school climate.

Seven Renaissance charters that began operating under outside management in 2010. They are scheduled to come up for their first formal accountability review this summer.

The five schools operated by ASPIRA of PA, Mastery Charter, and Scholar Academies appear on-track to meet or exceed their targets for serving students from the surrounding neighborhood, according to an analysis of preliminary district data by NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

Another Universal school in West Philadelphia, Universal-Bluford, is also falling short of its target for neighborhood enrollment, by about 12 percentage points.

Universal is also well below its target at Edwin Vare Middle School, which it took over as a Renaissance charter in 2011.

Decision time approaches

The cash-strapped Philadelphia School District must decide this spring whether to continue paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to subsidize Universal’s use of district-owned facilities at Vare and Audenried High.

Universal officials declined to comment.

District Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn stressed that the currently available enrollment data is unofficial. He said the numbers at Universal’s Renaissance charters raise “some questions we would want to dig into.”

Overall, though, Kihn said the city’s Renaissance charters appear to be living up to their charge to function as neighborhood schools.

“This is an initiative the district has undertaken that works,” he said. The Renaissance idea was hatched during the tenure of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Three more traditional public schools are expected to be designated for conversion to Renaissance charters sometime next month.

Success stories

Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia is a prime example of why the district is eager to expand the Renaissance initiative.

In 2009-10, its last year as a district-managed school, Douglass enrolled 518 students. According to district data, that was about 58 percent of the public school students who lived in the neighborhood surrounding the school.

That meant that hundreds of dissatisfied families were opting to send their kids elsewhere.

The charge given Scholar Academies, the non-profit charter management organization that took control of Douglass in 2010-11, was to bring those families back. Under its charter agreements with the district, Scholar Academies is required to serve a set percentage of the students who live in the surrounding neighborhood.

Under outside management, Douglass’ enrollment has risen to 755 students. More than 90 percent of the public school students in the surrounding neighborhood are now attending the school, far exceeding its target.

Lars Beck, chief executive officer of Scholar Academies, said consistency has been a big reason for the turnaround.

“We’ve focused on trying to build trust with our families by delivering on our promises,” said Beck.

Douglass’s test scores have also gone up in both reading and math.

The story is similar at the two Renaissance charters operated by ASPIRA of PA, a community development organization focused on improving predominantly Latino neighborhoods in eastern North Philadelphia.

Mastery Charter is also at or near its student enrollment targets at each of the five Renaissance charter schools over which it assumed control in 2010 or 2011.

Missing their targets

Deputy Superintendent Kihn said the district’s first formal review of the first batch of Renaissance schools will likely begin this summer.

At the moment, only Universal appears to have cause for concern.

Its schools’ test score gains have also been comparatively modest.

“If there were examples of schools that were way off their targets, we would take the action that we’re allowed to within their charters,” said Kihn.

That could include imposing new conditions or returning the schools to district control.

The district and its charter operators do not use the same systems to track student enrollment and home addresses. As a result, keeping student information up-to-date and validating student records across multiple data systems remains a logistical challenge.

Still, the unofficial data from the district offer “a pretty good glimpse” of what’s actually happening, said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, the chief innovation officer at Mastery. But once Renaissance charter operators have the opportunity to validate each students’ address, she said, the numbers will likely rise modestly.

A question of money

Two other Renaissance charters operated by Universal could come under scrutiny this spring, a year before their formal accountability reviews take place.

In 2011-12, the district allowed the organization to operate rent-free at Audenried High School and Edwin Vare Middle School in South Philadelphia. The district absorbed $1.8 million in facilities, maintenance, utilities and personnel costs at the schools that year. One reason given was the schools didn’t have enough enrollment to support a cost-effective turnaround program.

After the Notebook and NewsWorks reported on the deal, Universal agreed to pick up $800,000 of those costs for 2012-13. The district, which borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills this year, continues to absorb significant expenses at both buildings.

The current agreement between the district and Universal expires this June. They have until the end of May to work out a new deal.

“We have undertaken different arrangements with different Renaissance charter operators over the last couple of years, and that’s something we have to take a look at,” said Kihn.

“Our general stance towards charter schools is that we do not provide facilities.”

At Vare, the district’s preliminary enrollment data shows that Universal has only marginally increased the school’s share of students from the surrounding neighborhood.

Under district management, Vare served 35 percent of students in its catchment. Under Universal management, the school now serves 41 percent of those students. The district’s target for Universal at Vare this year is 51 percent.

Universal-Audenried currently serves 30 percent of students from the surrounding neighborhood. Its target is 29 percent.

Round four

Kihn said the district intends to seek proposals for a fourth group of Renaissance charter schools “at the beginning of February.”

Three low-performing district schools are expected to be converted to charters.

Three more are expected to be “turned around” by the district as Promise Academies.

The new Renaissance charters will be matched with outside managers under the same process as in previous years. School Advisory Councils consisting of parents and community members will vet proposals from potential operators and select a preferred candidate. The final recommendation will be made by the superintendent.

A School Reform Commission vote is tentatively slated for May.

Representatives from ASPIRA. Mastery and Scholar Academies all said they hope to compete this year, depending on which schools are named.

“We don’t take schools just for the sake of taking schools,” said ASPIRA’s Calderon.

“We want to make an impact in the neighborhood.”

This article was written as part of a partnership in covering the Philadelphia schools between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook. 

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