Major overhauls ordered at 11 Philly schools

Exterior of John Bartram high School. April 2 2014

Eleven city schools will be overhauled in the fall - some by their own design and others at the Philadelphia School District’s behest, with staff shakeups, structures imposed by the central office, and additional resources.

“The whole point of this was to really have a method to do some significant improvements in schools,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Wednesday. “We felt like these 11 would require immediate action.”

The schools —Bartram, Ben Franklin, Fels, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and Overbrook High Schools; Harding Middle School;  and Hartranft, Heston, John Marshall, McDaniel, and Blankenburg Elementary Schools — were chosen because of academic struggles over many years, officials said.

Four of the schools —Hartranft, McDaniel, Harding, and Bartram  — developed their own academic improvement plans, and will implement changes ranging from more intense teacher coaching to blended learning, which mixes technology and face-to-face instruction. They will retain their principals, and staff turnover will vary from school to school.

Three — Blankenburg, Heston, and John Marshall  — will enter the district’s turnaround network, with intense structures prescribed by the central office. Principals and staff must reapply for their jobs, with the school leader able to keep up to 80 percent of current teachers, a shift from prior practice. Turnaround schools could previously keep just 50 percent of teachers.

Fels, Ben Franklin, Kensington Health Sciences, and Overbrook will take part in a high school initiative focused on ninth-grade supports. The schools’ principals and staffs will not need to reapply for their jobs.

None will be turned over to private managers, one possibility district officials mentioned earlier this school year when they designated the schools for overhaul.

The district will spend more money at each school, making investments of up to $1 million per school in personnel, academic materials, and building improvements.

The changes were not universally hailed.

Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the plan was another way for the district to destabilize schools.

“Reconstitution is a failure," Jordan said, referring to the practice of replacing school staff. "It hasn’t been successful anywhere, including here in Philadelphia.”

The model, Jordan said, shows a lack of respect for the work that teachers and other school staff have done with few resources and little support.

The PFT, however, agreed in its contract to allow staff overhauls at schools designated for the district for turnaround.

Hite ordered the changes Wednesday after a four-month process. After the schools were designated in October, on the basis of academic and climate measures over the last several years, an outside company conducted community meetings and held site visits.

Some themes emerged in studying all 11. For the most part, school communities took less issue with climate than with academics — by and large, instruction at the schools is not up to par, Hite said.

“We heard from students at the high schools that they didn’t feel they were necessarily being prepared for college, and that they didn’t feel like they were being challenged to their full abilities,” said Ryan Stewart, the district’s head of school improvement and innovation.

More work is planned around the district’s large neighborhood high schools, which, like such schools nationally, struggle. The ninth-grade focus at Fels, Ben Franklin, Kensington Health Sciences, and Overbrook is a start, Hite said.

Kensington Health Sciences is one of the city’s community schools, chosen by Mayor Kenney to receive embedded social services and support inside the building. Many in the school were wary of the turnaround designation, and there was particularly robust turnout at meetings over its fate.

The school has developed a strong culture and done well with partnerships, but “academic outcomes, in terms of proficiency and growth, are lagging behind what we want to see,” Stewart said.

On Tuesday, James Williams, the school’s longtime principal, said he would leave Kensington Health Sciences for a central-office job. He will help other schools build partnerships, advocating for the district at the city and state level, Hite said.

Lachante Collier-Bacon, the principal of McDaniel Elementary, in Point Breeze, said she was excited by the promise of change at her school.

McDaniel has real challenges: more than 600 students, many of whom have learning and mental-health challenges, spread over two campuses four blocks away. Its plan will provide for a counselor, nurse, school police officer, and assistant principal in each building, and intense professional development and coaching.

“It’s a new model for change that’s been a long time in the making,” said Collier-Bacon, who is in her fourth year as principal.

All of the teachers at the school will have to reapply for their job.

“Teachers will be held to new and higher expectations for student growth,” said Collier-Bacon. “We want teachers who are willing to be coached, who are eager to continuously update their skills.”

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