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Renaissance Schools Feature Youth, Inexperience, Some Progress

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The teaching staffs at Philadelphia’s first group of Renaissance Schools are younger, less experienced, and significantly less likely to be fully certified than they were prior to the schools being “turned around.”

At the same time, according to a new report, the seven externally managed Renaissance charter schools and six district-run Promise Academies have better student attendance and clearer expectations for student behavior than they did previously. The schools have also used an injection of new resources to improve their physical appearance and provide an influx of non-teaching adults who contribute to improved school climates.

The findings come from a new reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader released Thursday by local nonprofit Research for Action.

The report, however, does not provide any school-specific information and does not assess the value of the most expensive piece of the Promise Academy model—added instructional time during a longer school day and on some Saturdays, for which teachers must be paid extra.

Fully one-third of teachers at Promise Academies are intern- or emergency-certified, and 22 percent of teachers at externally managed charters are not certified at all. Teachers at all 13 schools are also much younger than their counterparts; the average age of teachers at Renaissance charters is 28, at Promise Academies, 34. In Empowerment Schools, low-performing district schools that are not being “turned around,” the average age of teachers is 41.

And while the Renaissance charter schools are hiring more White teachers, the Promise Academies saw a rise in the percentage of African American teachers.

The study, commissioned by the Accountability Review Council (ARC), an oversight board mandated by Pennsylvania’s state takeover law, is the first external evaluation of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s “signature” Renaissance initiative, one of the nation’s most aggressive in attempting to turn around low-achieving schools. RFA’s findings on the Renaissance initiative were part of the ARC’s annual reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader to the School Reform Commission on the district’s progress.

“We wanted to look at the Renaissance Schools at the very beginning to make certain that we could provide you with important feedback,” ARC Chairman Dr. James E. Lyons told the School Reform Commission on Wednesday.

Lyons also lauded the continued districtwide test score gains and rising number of schools making Adequate Yearly Progress last year under the federal No Child Left Behind act.

But with student performance data from the state PSSA exam not yet available for this year and no school-by-school analysis, the RFA report mostly offers a general, descriptive look of the early stages of the Renaissance effort. A clearer assessment of the extent to which 13 of the city’s lowest-performing schools are being successfully overhauled will have to wait until next year, said RFA Executive Director Kate Shaw.

“The next piece of research that will be done, we’ll be able to look at the student outcome measures, and there will also be comparative case studies,” said Shaw.

The SRC voted Wednesday to award RFA a $150,000 contract to continue their research next year.

Highlights of the current report, for which the district paid RFA $80,000, include new findings on changing staffing patterns at the Renaissance schools.

In addition to being conspicuously young, teachers in both the Renaissance charters and the Promise Academies average four years experience in the district, far fewer than the nine years of average experience at the district’s Empowerment Schools.

And at the Renaissance charters, there was a 21 percent increase in uncertified teachers. At the Promise Academies, the percentage of teachers with intern certifications rose from 8 to 20 percent, and the percentage of those with emergency certification rose from 5 to 13 percent.

From 2009-10 to 2010-11, the percentage of White teachers rose from 57 to 75 percent in at the Renaissance charters, but decreased from 63 to 54 percent at the Promise Academies.

The report doesn’t specify this, but many Teach for America teachers, mostly new college graduates recruited to work in high-needs schools, are intern-certified. Many TFA corps members in Philadelphia work in Renaissance Schools, both Promise Academies and charters.

RFA’s report also describes the extra resources that were poured into the Renaissance Schools this year. The district has spent about $20 million extra in the 13 schools this year, and many of the charter operators have also invested significant private dollars—in some cases, upwards of $1 million per school.

As a result, all 13 Renaissance schools were able to provide added social services and behavioral support staff. Promise Academies, for example, “had the added support from a full-time nurse, a full-time resource specialist, and a half-time social worker. … An extra counselor was provided … if their student-to-counselor ratio approached the range that would normally warrant an extra counselor,” reads the report.

New paint and consistent “messaging” materials like posters and signs were also evident in all 13 schools, and physical plant improvements occurred in more than half the schools.

“When you became a Promise Academy, you became a priority, so you got your air conditioning and your heat fixed,” the report quotes one staffer.

It is unclear to what extent similar investments will be made in the Renaissance Schools during the 2011-12 school year. Despite a potential $629 million budget shortfall, district officials have sought to preserve most of the additional funding for Promise Academies and are working to shield the schools from cuts to their allocations and from possible teacher layoffs.

As part of their initial turnaround efforts, both the district and the Renaissance charter operators sought to implement new safety interventions, with mixed results.

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All schools implemented new uniform policies and most focused on clear behavioral expectations. But only four of the charters and just one Promise Academy were found to have “school-wide systems rather than fragmented interventions.”

“Charter managers with established models for behavioral support system had an advantage when compared to other school managers and leaders, who had to invent and modify their behavioral support systems after the school year had already begun,” reads the report.

Likewise, all schools sought to implement new systems for using student performance data, also with mixed success.

“Many teachers and principals believed that using data to inform instruction was an ideal process for data use,” reads the report. “However, few schools had been able to put systems in place in the early months of the school year to facilitate these practices.”

The report’s third main area of focus was the School Advisory Councils, school-based groups of parents and community members tasked with monitoring progress at the schools.

The report describes wide variations among the SACs. Some meet as frequently as four times a month, while others have met only a few times in total. Only six of the 13 councils had 51 percent parent participation, a requirement of the district.

There also exists a wide range of opinions about the role of the SACs. While most SAC chairpersons saw themselves as “critical players” in supporting school improvement, some principals expressed altogether different views.

“For some reason they got into this grandiose idea that they’re in charge. So I have to back them up and let them know I am in charge here. … my idea of them is that they support us and whatever we need to do,” one Promise Academy principal is quoted as saying.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky thanked ARC and RFA for the findings, calling them “valuable” and a “fresh viewpoint.” But he urged the groups to provide more timely information—including an analysis of student test scores—that can directly inform SRC decision-making in the future.

“One of the great things about the Renaissance initiative is to have two cohorts of schools being operated under different models,” said Dworetzky. “I think we really need a critical look at that.”

Michael Churchill, a lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, also expressed disappointment at the lack of school-specific information in the report.

“The important analysis must come next year with individual school-by-school reports of before and after achievement changes and examinations of programmatic differences between the schools,” testified Churchill.

RFA’s Eva Gold, who led the study, defended the decision to provide only general information in the report.

“We felt at this early stage, it would not be productive to [identify] schools,” said Gold. “They need to be able to hear what we’re finding and take from it results and recommendations that can help them work to improve their schools.”

Vol. 30, Issue 32

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