Upon learning that University City High School was on the list for radical changes, one teacher described the mood as "pretty gloomy."

"It's like someone died," said Jeffrey Rosenberg, a gym teacher and athletic director who has spent 15 years at the school. "Our heads are spinning."

The atmosphere wasn't much better at the Douglass School in North Philadelphia, which has had seven principals in the last seven years.

"Some people are very sad; some are saying maybe it won't happen," said Betsy Wice, a retired reading specialist who returns every day to volunteer at the elementary school where she taught for 20 years. "People are sort of clutching at straws."

Across the School District of Philadelphia, teachers, parents, staff, and students at 14 schools put on the district's overhaul-eligible list Wednesday still are trying to figure out what the future might hold.

The so-called Renaissance schools are a key piece of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's "Imagine 2014" blueprint for academic reform.

All the schools being considered for makeovers landed on the list because of years of low test scores and poor performance on other measures, including student progress, attendance, violence, and parent and teacher satisfaction.

The district has not yet said how many of the 14 will undergo dramatic transformation by September. But those selected in March will follow one of four paths. They could be operated as charters, or by outside managers with staff that are no longer district employees. Or they could be district-managed schools run by turnaround teams selected in part by the community, or they could be operated by individuals selected by the superintendent or the central office.

Half the 14 schools in the pool were part of the district's first experiment with outside educational managers in 2002. All were returned to district control. If selected for this restructuring, those seven schools would undergo their third overhaul in eight years.

Ackerman and her administration say Renaissance schools will be different from past reform plans because they will include the community, contain performance standards, and give the operators autonomy and control that previous managers didn't have.

Reaction to landing on the Renaissance list varies widely. Some administrators are upbeat about the possibilities.

Bonnie Berman, principal of the Daroff School in West Philadelphia since July, views Daroff's presence on the list as "a rebirth opportunity" that will benefit the elementary school's 674 students.

"We're looking at this as an opportunity to improve the school community," agreed Michael Smith, principal of Mann, another elementary school in West Philadelphia.

But others are angry, disappointed, and upset that their schools could be takeover targets. Some teachers are talking about organizing protest marches and petition drives.

Teachers also are confused about what exactly it would mean to be a Renaissance school. And they are wondering where they will work next year if their schools are slated for overhaul.

At Philly Teacher Talks, a blog maintained by a district teacher, as of last night only 15 of the 156 participants who have cast votes in an online poll said they would remain if their schools are selected for makeovers. Thirty would apply for teaching jobs in the suburbs; 76 would seek other positions in the district.

One University City teacher said that, at first, landing on the list seemed like a wonderful opportunity.

"But as quickly as we read and heard the details of the plan, we were saying, 'Oh, my gosh,' " said the teacher, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

The teacher fears that progress the school has made since getting a $6 million school-improvement grant from the U.S. Department of Labor may be erased.

"Our morale immediately plummeted," the teacher said. "There's many, many good teachers who are so upset by this they won't even bother applying" to stay.

Students, the teacher said, are also abuzz about the possibility of attending a Renaissance school, which could mean more time in class.

"They were saying, 'Are you kidding me? They think I'm going to go to school on Saturdays? And 4 o'clock? . . . I'm not doing that,' " the University City teacher said.

Ackerman has said teachers should feel excited about the opportunities now open to schools. But Matthew Malone, who helped launch an Advanced Placement program at West Philadelphia High School last year, said he feared that overhauling his school could jeopardize important gains made in the last two years. Violence has plummeted, new programs have been launched, academics are being emphasized, and students are involved.

"I just don't think this model is right for West right now," said Malone, a 2007 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who teaches AP American history and coaches varsity baseball. "We just need more time to see if the PSSA scores and other numbers that are important to the district follow."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose new contract details teachers' rights at Renaissance schools, met Friday with district officials and with union representatives and principals of the affected schools to answer questions and explain what will happen over the next several months.

School meetings for teachers and parents begin today.

"There has been a lot of misinformation," Jordan said. "Some people are scared to death that they are going to lose their jobs, and I understand that. We think they are beginning to have a better understanding, but it takes time."

He urges teachers to talk to members of the examination teams that will be visiting each school before the final list is chosen. They should point out the programs and changes already under way at their schools, he said.

Jordan also tells his members that under the federal No Child Left Behind act, districts can close failing schools, as has been done in Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere.

The changes planned under Philadelphia's Renaissance model, Jordan said, are "not going to be as draconian as what is going on around the country."

Renaissance School Meetings

The Philadelphia School District will hold information meetings for teachers and parents at each of the Renaissance-eligible schools.

Teachers will meet from 3:30 to 4 p.m., and parents from 6 to 8 p.m.

Today: Dunbar and Daroff.

Tomorrow: Potter-Thomas and Bluford.

Wednesday: Clemente and Smedley.

Thursday: Vaux and Douglass.

Next Monday: Ethel Allen and Harrity.

Feb. 9: Mann and Stetson.

Feb. 10: University City.

Feb. 11: West Philadelphia.

For more information, go to www.philasd.org

SOURCE: Philadelphia School District


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.