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'Renaissance' Schools Chalk Up Big Gains in Philadelphia

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Philadelphia’s new “Renaissance” turnaround operators are reporting big gains on Pennsylvania’s 2011 state standardized tests at the seven long-struggling public schools that were converted to charters last year.

All the converted schools saw improvements in both reading and math scores. Six of the seven saw double-digit gains in math.

At Stetson Middle School, for example, 55 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math last year, up 22 points from 2010. Stetson also saw an 8-point jump in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading, from 25 percent to 33 percent.

“We’re elated,” said Alfredo Calderon, the executive director of ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, which now manages the school.

In 2010, then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman launched her Renaissance Schools initiative, aimed at quickly turning around some of the city’s toughest elementary and middle schools. Seven schools were handed over to four outside managers for conversion to charters, and six more were slated for internal turnaround as district-run Promise Academies.

This year, six more schools, including three neighborhood high schools, have been converted to Renaissance charters. Three more schools were designated Promise Academies.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is expected to release official PSSA results for all schools in the state later this week. But ASPIRA and fellow Renaissance operators Mastery Charter Schools, Scholar Academies, and Universal Companies each provided preliminary PSSA results to the Notebook in advance of the official announcement.

The preliminary results do not include detailed grade-by-grade breakdowns, which could show variations from the schoolwide results. Researchers generally caution simply comparing one year to the next without taking into account both prior trends at the school and what is happening in the district and state at large.

There could be slight fluctuations in the final numbers, but the overall picture at the Renaissance charters is clearly encouraging, said Thomas Darden, the district’s deputy chief for strategic programs.

"Turning around neighborhood schools that have been chronically underperforming ranks as one of the toughest challenges in public education, and the district is very pleased to see these gains in academic performance,” said Darden.

Tyhesha Ross, the parent of a second grader at Mastery-Harrity in West Philadelphia, said the change from 2010 and 2011 was remarkable.

Before Mastery took over, “the system was broken," said Ross, speaking when Mastery released their PSSA results earlier in the summer.

"Teachers were overwhelmed, and students were not given the help they needed,” she explained.

But in the 2010-2011 school year, she said, things were different.

“It was a positive change. I got five text [messages] a week from his teacher, telling me something positive about my son,” said Ross.

From 2010 to 2011, the percentage of Harrity students scoring proficient or advanced in math jumped 17 points, from 38 to 55 percent. There was a 10-point jump in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading, from 27 to 37 percent.

Mastery CEO Scott Gordon cited high expectations for students and intensive supports for teachers as the keys to achieving the quick turnaround.

“The big picture for taxpayers and parents is that failing schools can go from low-achieving, violent places to places that parents choose to send their children to in one year,” said Gordon.

Despite concerns from many that the Renaissance charter operators would seek dramatic results by pushing out the hardest-to-serve students, a comprehensive Notebook review of district student enrollment and retention data showed that the schools drew hundreds of local families back while holding on to most of the school’s prior students.

At Harrity, for example, Mastery added 167 neighborhood students to the school’s rolls while losing about two dozen fewer than typical in years past.

“All the evidence points to the fact that these are the same kids,” said Gordon.

At Stetson, ASPIRA achieved its big PSSA gains while adding 68 new neighborhood students and retaining until June 95.6 percent of those enrolled as of October.

Stetson’s principal, Renato Lajara, also led the school for its last two years under district management, when it struggled mightily with low achievement and high levels of violence.

Lajara stressed that the school’s dramatic transformation wasn’t the result of any single program or strategy. Instead, he attributed the change to better, more supportive management.

“The difference is the district gives you a budget and says, ‘Perform,’” said Lajara. “ASPIRA is the opposite. They ask you what your vision is, and then they apply the budget according to the vision.”

The result, he said, has been smaller class sizes, more support staff, an in-school disciplinary academy to handle disruptive students, and a quicker response to the problems that inevitably arise.

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Some of the extra supports at the Renaissance charters are made possible by private funds raised by the managers on top of the per-pupil allotment paid them by the district.

“We don’t do the cookie-cutter approach,” said ASPIRA’s Calderon. “We say, ‘OK, let’s set up the ideal school environment, and let’s figure out how to pay for it.’ We go get the money.”

Mastery employs a similar strategy, investing roughly $1 million extra into each of its turnaround elementary schools in their first year. Most of the money is raised from foundations and private donors.

But Gordon said that money represents a one-time investment to initiate the turnaround process. After the first year, he said, the Renaissance charters would be able to function on the same budgets as traditional district schools.

“We can turn around schools, and it can be done at scale,” he said.

Not all of the initial Renaissance charters experienced sharp gains in their first year.

Universal-Bluford, for example, saw a modest 2-point gain in math and a 4-point gain in reading.

Nevertheless, said Janis Butler, Universal’s executive vice president of education, the organization was excited about the progress they made in year one.

“One of the main goals is to make sure you stop the hemorrhaging,” said Butler. “I caution against big spikes. I want to make sure what we do is lasting and there is a steady increase so that we know it’s real.”

District officials have announced a ninth straight year of districtwide gains and said that 110 of 267 schools met their federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress targets in 2010-11. They have also touted significant gains at their internal turnaround schools, the Promise Academies.

But a comparison of the district’s turnaround schools to those turned over to private management will have to wait until the school-by-school results are announced later this week.

All of the 2011 PSSA results for both district and charter schools have been subject to a forensic analysis looking for statistical irregularities that could be a sign of possible cheating. PDE officials have offered no firm timeline for when that analysis or any of its findings will be released.

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