Special Report: Anatomy Of A Turnaround

Charter-run Renaissance schools are one of Philly’s few education success stories. A deep dive inside one attempt to transform a failing school begs the question: Should this be the future of reform?

Special Report: Anatomy Of A Turnaround

Charter-run Renaissance schools are one of Philly’s few education success stories. A deep dive inside one attempt to transform a failing school begs the question: Should this be the future of reform?

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”       

——Frederick Douglass, from a mural outside Young Scholars Frederick Douglass

Two weeks into the school year at Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, a group of kindergarten students has left their classroom for a lesson rarely found at school: They are learning how to walk.

“Eyes track forward,” their young teacher commands. “Hands folded. No talking.”

The young students face their teacher in single file, their yellow school t-shirts tightly tucked into khakis, as they wait for instruction. The hallway is bright and clean and almost silent — helped in part by ceilings that were lowered and lights that were installed nearly five years ago, when Scholar Academies took over the struggling neighborhood school. The walls on either side are hung with college banners to remind the students of where they should be headed. From the ceiling dangle flags promoting Scholar Academies’ mantra, PATH: Professional. Attentive. Thoughtful. Hardworking. Most of the kindergarteners in line cannot read the signs. But they have absorbed the philosophy since their first day, during “culture camp” that laid out the elaborate rules, expectations, rewards and punishments associated with being a student at Douglass today. Right now, that means walking in an orderly manner from one end of the hall to the other.

The teacher points to a yellow line painted on the floor about two feet from the wall. “Remember, you stay on your side of the line,” she says. Then she watches each kindergartner walk towards a star—also painted on the floor—that indicates a “crosswalk,” where they turn, and quietly make their way back against the opposite wall, next to another yellow line. Throughout, the teacher issues reminders—“Walk straight. Eyes forward”—until they arrive back at the start, where they do the whole thing again.

Renaissance schools, once-failing publics that are now charter-run, show more growth than comparable traditional charters and District-run schools. They are less expensive and less disruptive. They provide a glimpse of what school reform could look like in Philadelphia.

To an outsider, this lesson can seem like a small thing. But small things like this are paramount to Scholar Academies’ mission. The non-profit charter company took over Frederick Douglass in 2010, as part of the School District’s Renaissance Initiative to turn around failing schools. Their mandate was clear: Keep kids from the neighborhood in school, in a space where they can learn, and raise their academic success. To Scholar Academies, this meant changing everything—from the staff to the curriculum to the “culture,” an education catchphrase that references the environment of a school. “Learning is the primary purpose,” says Jana Wilcox, Scholar Academies Chief Operating Officer. “But we need to teach kids the skills they need to learn, and that means creating a culture in the school where they are expected to do certain things.”

Nearly five years after Scholar Academies’ takeover, Douglass is still a low-performing school. But it is slowly becoming a good school. Based on recently released state numbers, individual students at city Renaissance schools have shown greater year to year improvement on standardized tests than the state average, and far outpace progress at District schools. At Douglass, over the first two years, student proficiency in math increased 110 percent, and in reading, 41 percent; those scores have dropped since, but are still nearly three times what they were before Scholar Academies took over. In reading, PSSA scores improved by 27 percent at Douglass since the change, while average District scores dropped by 12 percent. Violent incidents were down by 95 percent; 90 percent of Douglass graduates went on to college-prep high schools. And parents have taken note: Since last school year, Douglass has been at full capacity, a 60 percent leap from 2009.

“From the minute I walked in that first year, I knew this was a place my kids could learn,” says Evette Robinson, who has four children at Douglass. “That’s all I wanted. You would think that my prayers were answered.”

The debate about school reform in Philadelphia has devolved into a battle over charter schools, which are portrayed either as beacons of choice or harbingers of great doom. Some 64,000 children—32 percent of the total—are enrolled in charters here. After this week’s vote, that number could go up—even though, on average, charters do no better or worse than District schools, while sapping funds and dividing neighborhoods. Enter the Renaissance schools, once failing publics that are now charter-run. They show more growth than comparable traditional charters and District-run schools. They are less expensive and less disruptive. As such, they provide a glimpse of what school reform could look like in Philadelphia.

Students at city Renaissance schools have shown greater year to year improvement on standardized tests than the state average, and far outpace progress at District schools.

The District pays charter companies around $11,000 per student. For several years, this amounted to a net loss for the District of $7,000 a student, according to a 2012 Boston Consulting Group report, primarily because of two factors: Some new charter students come from parochial schools, not District schools, so the money that goes to them is actually an added expense; and, the District still paid the same amount to maintain half-empty buildings. This was the main reason for the shuttering in 2013 of 23 city schools. Now the net loss per charter student is less—though how much less seems hard to say. The Philadelphia Schools Partnership, which has offered the District $25 million for new charters, calculates it at $2,000 per student. The District says that number’s way too low—District spokesman Fernando Gallard still used the $7,000 figure earlier this month—though SRC Chairman Bill Green says he doesn’t know how to calculate the real extra cost of educating students in the existing charters. And no one can agree on how much of a loss the District will suffer if it approves any of the proposals this week.

Compare that to Renaissance schools. As at the other Renaissance charters, all 780 Douglass students come from the surrounding catchment area—not from a lottery, which requires some parental savvy and costs the city in transportation fees from other parts of the city. Scholar Academies took over the old Douglass building, a stone behemoth at 21st and Norris, with all its associated maintenance costs. It inherited a failing school in a neighborhood riddled with violence, unstable home lives and almost universal poverty, where 100 percent of Douglass students, nearly all African American, are eligible for free lunches. The School District pays Scholar Academies approximately $11,000 per student, just like other charter schools. But because Renaissance schools inherit the costs of the building and students already enrolled there, the net loss to the city, according to the BCG report, is just $1,000 per student—a price that might be worth paying to turn around a chronically failing school.

“We continue to believe that Renaissance schools are a more effective and less expensive method of helping children in poorly-performing schools,” Green says. “There’s a conflict between that and authorizing new charters.”

The Renaissance Initiative was the signature policy of former schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who proposed two different models in 2010: Charter-run Renaissance schools that would take over the most failing schools; and Promise Academies, which would remain part of the District, but get a staff overhaul. (To do this, Ackerman got a concession from the teachers’ union to remove teacher seniority rules for Promise Academies.) The District launched the first cohort of Renaissance schools in September, 2010, with four K-8 Promise Academies; seven K-8 charters; and two Promise high schools. “The idea was to have a dynamic process with two different models,” says Joseph Dworetzky, a former Rendell appointee to the School Reform Commission. “That would allow us to test what works over years, figure out what best practices for school improvement are. I thought that was a brilliant idea. I still think it is.”

This year, the District and Penn’s Graduate School of Education have began a two-year, federally-funded study of Renaissance Schools and Promise Academies to analyze how they succeed or fail. That should provide a clear answer as to whether the experiment at Douglass and the other schools has worked. A 2011 study by education think tank Research For Action after the first year showed progress among both Promise and charter-run Renaissance schools, a tantalizing result that seems to prove the District itself can turn around schools without the use of charter operators. (One year’s data does not provide enough information to be conclusive.) But by Year Two, the School District’s budget had already started to shrink, robbing Promise Academies of some of their extras: in-school teaching coaches, extended summer orientation for teachers, Saturday school. A recent School District report pointed to this inconsistent support when explaining that Promise Academies have not shown much long-term improvement.

Frederick Douglass was a perfect candidate to become a Renaissance School in 2010. Operating at 40 percent capacity, it had failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress—a state assessment under No Child Left Behind—for at least 10 years, and had received the lowest possible grade from the city on its progress. Like the neighborhood around it, the school had once been a beacon of African American working class stability, with just three strong principals for much of its first 100 years. In 2001, the school was already struggling academically when the last of those principals retired; in the 10 years since, Douglass had seven different principals. Teachers who had worked in the school for decades subsequently left, and the ails of the neighborhood increasingly made their way into the building. “Every new principal came in with their own projects,” says Wice. “There was no leadership, which weakened the whole community. No one seemed able to control the kids anymore.”

The School District pays Scholar Academies approximately $11,000 per student, just like other charter schools. But because Renaissance schools inherit the costs of the building and students already enrolled there, the net loss to the city is just $1,000 per student.

As with all charters, the District paid Scholar Academies a monthly lump sum based on school population starting in early summer 2010, and granted them almost complete autonomy in how they spent it. They changed virtually everything. They hired and trained a new principal and almost all new teachers in the PATH way. (Under the Renaissance Initiative, schools had to turn over at least 51 percent of staff.) They tossed the student textbooks and created a standards-based curriculum that could be shaped by each teacher, according to the needs of each class. They also brought in a huge support staff unimaginable at regular District schools, particularly in this time of strain: Two “deans of students” with desks in the halls, to be additional adults outside the classroom, monitoring behavior; two instructional coaches to regularly work with teachers on curriculum and teaching methods; and two full-time social workers to offer mental health counseling to kids and direct families to social services as needed. “It’s about understanding student need and matching the resources to that,” says Scholar Academies Executive Director Lars Beck. “We’re able to creatively do that.” Scholar Academies got the keys to the building in July, and spent the next four weeks renovating and painting, using $130,000 they’d raised in grants from private donors—something even the most entrepreneurial District school principals struggle to do, given the constraints of the District bureaucracy.

On the first day of school, Young Scholars Frederick Douglass welcomed 505 neighborhood kids with an immediate lesson about Scholar Academies’ methods: Line up single file. Hats off. Tuck in shirts. “We start the practice as if they’ve been doing it forever,” says Wilcox. Clearly, this was something different. “It was beautiful and bright, and the staff was welcoming,” says Robinson. “I wanted to stay all day.” Word spread fast: Two weeks into the school year, 100 additional neighborhood kids showed up for school. “It was amazing because it showed that we were exactly what we wanted to be: A beacon of education in the middle of the community where people wanted to come,” says Wilcox.

But it wasn’t simple to wipe away years of dysfunction—both academic and cultural. At the start of school, Megan Scelfo Handy, head of Douglass’s support services, had planned for 50 special education students to be incorporated into regular classes. But from day one, Douglass officials realized that learning was even further behind than the school’s dismal test scores indicated. “First parents came in, saying they’d been asking for help for their kids for years and not getting it,” Handy recalls. “Then teachers started to notice other deficits in children. It was pretty evident there were a lot more kids who needed more than they were getting.” By the end of the year, Handy says 20 percent of the students were getting Special Ed.

Douglass officials were even more shocked by the level of chaos at the school. “There was lots of fighting, kids walking in and out of classes, disrespect of teachers on a consistent basis,” says Beck. “We were surprised by how much work there needed to be done, from a foundational level, to create an environment that felt like school, where learning could occur.” Now, the same students who had left a tumultuous school in June were expected to follow a strict set of rules that prescribed nearly every movement—like how to walk down the hall. In classrooms, teachers peppered their lessons with scripted reminders of ”correct protocol.” Every week, students who followed the rules were rewarded with a “paycheck” that they could redeem for privileges; those who didn’t, lost points and engaged with a structured five-step disciplinary process with real consequences: In the first three months of school, Douglass had 239 out of school suspensions, a 400 percent jump over the previous year. A couple of months into the school year, an 8th grade girl explained her frustration to an administrator. “We don’t know what you want us to do,” she said. “No one’s ever stood up in front of the classroom and asked us to be like this. Before, the teachers just tried to keep us in the room.”

But Douglass didn’t waver. Beck says consistency is one of the hallmarks of Scholar Academies, part of what he says is a key to its success. “One of the things we do well is set out a high set of expectations for our students,” he says. “In turnaround work, students want to, and can, rise up to what is asked of them. We need to create a bar and then remain consistent with it.”

As a charter, Douglass had one clear advantage over traditional District schools in working through these problems: Flexibility. The additional 100 kids who joined the school late came with an extra $1 million from the District—with no mandate for how it should be spent. The school spent the rest of the year reorganizing for the students who were actually there—adding teachers and non-academic staff, and creating a separate program for students with behavioral problems. Since then, Douglass has continued to evolve, separating (in the same building) the elementary and middle schools in 2013, adding social workers to help with problems outside of school that affect learning, and honing its PATH Academy for students with behavioral issues.

In its four-plus years, Douglass has made a compelling case for the Renaissance experiment. But the idea is also tainted by its association with the charter movement. Last year, the SRC for the first time gave parents at two struggling North Philly schools the chance to vote on whether or not to turn their schools into Renaissance charters, one operated by Mastery and the other by Aspira. After intense campaigning from both sides, the parents voted against the charter takeover—even though it meant losing out on an estimated $3,000 extra per student in the schools. “That was a mistake,” says Green. “Ultimately, we should have just gone with Bill Hite and his team’s recommendation to make them Renaissance schools.” For parents, it was an emotional choice: Accept that the District has given up on their school and its teachers, or hold out hope for change that hasn’t happened in decades.

“From the minute I walked in that first year, I knew this was a place my kids could learn,” says one parent. “That’s all I wanted. My prayers were answered.”

The episode speaks to what families want for their schools: Community, consistency, quality. It also speaks to one major criticism of charters—that they separate neighborhoods into schools all over the city of varying quality. Renaissance schools are run by private entities. They overhaul staff and policies, which means children arrive to what can seem like completely different schools. But like Douglass, they are also smack in the middle of a neighborhood—literally and figuratively. School administrators expect parents to help with their kids’ education, by attending school events and being in continual contact with teachers; teachers make home visits in the summer to get to know families; social workers offer to connect them with services they might need to survive. Last year, Douglass opened a Parent Resource Center, offering computer access, financial planning seminars and other educational opportunities to families of students. “It’s a circle: They offer things to the parents, which brings them in to the school more, and they get more involved,” Lackey says. “That’s at the heart of making the school better, and they’re committed to that.”

The lessons Scholar Academies learned over the last several years are no different than what turnaround schools across the country have figured out—whether district or charter. Real change means having the ability to make choices on the ground, in an individual school, depending on what it needs. It means supporting principals and teachers with training, and cultivating a culture that fosters learning. It means thinking beyond tired arguments of money and politics and urban ills. “We’re an autonomous entity that can move quickly, make decisions about how to fill holes, and who we need to hire, based on what has happened,” says Wilcox. “We can do more with the resources we’re given because we’re nimble in a way other schools are not.”

For comparison, look at the William D. Kelley School in Strawberry Mansion, which serves a similar population to Frederick Douglass. Kelley was supposed to become a Promise Academy in 2011, which would have allowed principal Amelia Coleman-Brown to choose her staff, train them over the summer, and implement the sort of consistent cultural changes that helped Douglass. Instead, every year she has to hire from a small pool of Philadelphia teachers, most of whom–because more senior ones tend to choose better schools in better neighborhoods–are among the least experienced in the system. “There’s a sense of urgency with these students,” she says. “I need to be able to hit the ground running with a highly-qualified staff. But here I have to bring teachers up at the same time that we’re trying to bring students up. I don’t have the autonomy to bring in what I need.”

Coleman-Brown has still managed to incorporate many Renaissance ideas into her running of Kelley, like some summer training for teachers, along with longer workdays and higher demands. And she has “spent a considerable amount of time” securing outside grants to help fund other initiatives, including $1.5 million from the Philadelphia Schools Partnership that she says will mainly be used for teacher development over the next several years. (“That’s what matters most,” she notes.) But the piecemeal approach to her turnaround effort makes it hard to get off the ground. “We don’t know if we’ll have the resources to keep things going year to year,” she says. “It’s hard to have a vision, to promise parents what they’re going to see, because we don’t have that consistency.”

Like other charters, Renaissance schools operate on a five year contract with the District—which means the first group of schools, including Frederick Douglass, will come up for review this spring. None of them are likely to be shut down since almost all have shown strides in turning once-awful schools into decent ones. But are they actually good? And what about great? According to a December 2013, School District assessment of the Renaissance Program, successful turnarounds should show “dramatic” progress within three to five years—though the report does not specify what “dramatic” would mean. The report called out Douglass’s lower PSSA scores, and cautioned that the school “may fall short of what is needed to achieve dramatic results.”

Douglass officials, though, aren’t worried. Beck says you go from turnaround to great one step at a time, by continuing to analyze what works, by relentlessly seeking to improve, and by continually asking how teachers can be better supported, and how schools can better work with families.

The reality is that five years is not nearly enough to wipe away the disparities in the school system. “It’s far from the end game,” says Dworetzky. “The track records of these schools go back 10, 20, 30 years. It’s not about absolute perfection. But have they taken students further? In many cases, yes.”

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