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    Author: 
    by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner
    Author Bio: 

    Contact WHYY education reporter Benjamin Herold at bherold@whyy.org.

    As part of its Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative, the School District of Philadelphia has outsourced management of 17 struggling public schools over the past three years.

    The result is a transformed educational landscape in which a patchwork of seven independent charter school management organizations has replaced the traditional school system in large sections of the city, as shown in this graphic by NewsWorks, the Notebook, and geospace analysis firm Azavea.

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    by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

    Philadelphia's independent Renaissance school operators are bringing families back to struggling neighborhood public schools that they have "turned around" -- with one notable exception.

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    Sub Title: 
    In its 2nd year at the school, the charter operator is making adjustments.
    Author: 
    by Dale Mezzacappa
    Author Bio: 

    Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa at dalem@thenotebook.org.

    When Mastery Charter took over Simon Gratz High School in 2011, the organization was getting into territory it had never been in before.

    Mastery’s prior experience with 9th graders had been in the school they started – Lenfest – and in schools they had built up from the 7th grade. 

    But Gratz was different – a 9th-through-12th grade comprehensive high school that had recently hit a low point in its storied history. When converted to a Renaissance charter in 2011, Gratz was listed by the state as “persistently dangerous,” with a graduation rate under 50 percent and student proficiency rates in the teens. 

    Image: 
    Image Caption: 

    Jimik Ligon gets help from a teacher in the blended learning algebra class. Students work at their own pace through a computer-based curriculum under close supervision.

    Photo Credits: 
    Harvey Finkle

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    by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

    The Philadelphia School District is vowing to take a hard line on two issues that have caused confusion when charter operators take over traditional public schools: special education and facilities costs.

    Even as the District tries to convert three more of its schools into charters, officials and parents alike are wading through confusion over “exceptions” that past administrations granted to outside managers in previous years of the District’s Renaissance school turnaround initiative.

    Featured Title: 
    Still no deals at Clymer, Audenried, Vare

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    by Aaron Moselle and Zack Seward for NewsWorks

    Cheering fans, cheerleaders, and mascots filled Temple University's Liacouras Center on Monday afternoon.

    None of them was there for a game.

    Instead, thousands of students, staff members and parents traveled to the North Philadelphia arena for Mastery Charter Schools' first-ever College Signing Day, an event patterned after National Signing Day for high school athletes.

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    by Connie Langland

    By a 4-1 vote of the School Reform Commission, Universal Companies last night came one step closer to winning the charter to run Alcorn Elementary School under the District’s Renaissance turnaround program.

    But there’s one big "if."

    The granting of the charter is still not official, and Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn emphasized last night that the handover remained contingent on Universal coming to new terms with the District for the use of Audenried High School and Vare Middle School, both in South Philadelphia.

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    by Connie Langland

    Strong-armed into agreeing to enrollment caps, five charter schools won five-year operating renewals in votes Wednesday night by the School Reform Commission, but five others still have not come to terms with District officials determined to contain costs in the midst of its fiscal crisis.

    Funding uncertainties also spurred a decision by Superintendent William Hite to delay the conversion of three low-performing elementary schools — Alcorn, Kenderton and Pastorius — into Renaissance charters under the District’s school turnaround initiative. The SRC had been scheduled to approve assignment of Alcorn to Universal Companies, Kenderton to Scholar Academies and Pastorius to Mastery Charter Schools.

    Hite said that the turnovers were tabled “because of the unpredictability of the budget situation” but that the plan would proceed apace “once we have a clearer picture of our revenue and our funding.”

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    The School Reform Commission Friday approved the Renaissance charter agreements for three schools, officially turning Pastorius over to Mastery Charter Schools, Kenderton to Scholar Academies, and Alcorn to Universal Companies.

    At a tense, four-hour meeting, it also accepted $1.1 million in grant money from the Philadelphia School Partnership to expand three high-performing District schools: converting the experimental Sustainability Workshop into the Workshop School; creating a second campus of Science Leadership Academy, and expanding the middle school Hill-Freedman to include high school grades.

    But it did so over the persistent objections of Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who did a financial analysis showing that the District will be absorbing considerable extra cost for these schools after this year -- a move he called financially irresponsible given the District's shaky budget picture. Earlier in the meeting, the District had announced it only had enough funding to rehire a few hundred of the 3,800 staff laid off this summer.

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    The School Reform Commission postponed scheduled votes on two charter schools Thursday, pulling one at the last minute for reasons related to an investigation of test cheating.

    Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter High School was one of three city charters flagged by the state for potential cheating after analyses of test results for 2009, 2010, and 2011 showed statistical irregularities. The charter was directed by the state to conduct an investigation, which resulted in the dismissal of an assistant principal and the imposition of stricter testing protocols. 

    The renewal vote on PE&T was delayed, officials said, not because of problems with the school's own probe, but because the District is not yet ready to release its investigations into possible cheating at more than a dozen District-run schools.

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    Photo Credits: 
    C. Shonda Woods

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    Schools turned over to charter operators -- and to a lesser extent, District-run Promise Academies -- have shown improvements in academics and climate under the three-year-old Renaissance schools turnaround initiative, a new report has found, although big first- and second-year gains have started to slow down or reverse. 

    According to the study, conducted by the District's Office of Research and Evaluation, most Renaissance charters continue to have higher proficiency rates than those schools did pre-turnaround, despite the leveling-off of earlier gains.

    The reported improvements occurred during a time when overall proficiency rates for District-run schools were declining after years of increases; the downslide began after strict test protocols were put in place in District schools in the wake of a statewide cheating scandal.

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    by Jeseamy Muentes

    Sharif El-Mekki, principal at Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus, has been selected as one of three Principal Ambassador Fellows in the U.S. Department of Education’s first-ever Principal Ambassador Fellowship program.

    The program, modeled after the Education Department’s six-year old Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program, will recognize the important impact that principals have on instructional leadership, staff performance, and the school environment. El-Mekki and the two other fellows were chosen in December from more than 450 applicants from district, charter, and private schools nationwide. One of the other fellows is from a magnet school in Tennessee, and the other is from a Washington, D.C., high school.

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    Image Caption: 

    Mastery Shoemaker principal Sharif El-Mekki

    Photo Credits: 
    Harvey Finkle

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    The School Reform Commission approved the sales of six vacant properties Thursday night, most of them schools that were closed within the last two years.

    It also ratified a contract with the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents principals and assistant principals, who will reduce their work year and see lower salaries. 

    The properties will be sold for a total of $37 million under the current agreements, but the District will net $25.8 million after closing costs and other costs are taken out, said Fran Burns, the District's operations manager.

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    Image Caption: 

    The District approved the sale of the University City property to Drexel University City Development for $25 million.

    Photo Credits: 
    School District of Philadelphia

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    The Philadelphia School Partnership announced today that it will disburse nearly $3 million to support the expansion of three charter schools.

    It will grant $2.1 million to charter operator American Paradigm to help in adding a second elementary campus and a new high school. Mastery Charter School will get $855,000 to support expanding its Simon Gratz and Hardy Williams campuses.

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    Concerned that not enough students at Mastery charter schools are enrolling, persisting, and succeeding in college, the organization is revamping its curriculum and instructional methods, according to founder and CEO Scott Gordon.

    The charter school network, which operates 15 schools in the city – most of them converted District schools – sent a notice to parents at the end of the school year and provided the Notebook with documents that outline some new teaching strategies and the philosophy behind the changes, dubbed Mastery 3.0.

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    Sub Title: 
    Notebook's Paul Socolar will be on the advisory board.

    Philadelphia, distinct among large urban districts for its long history of pursuing school turnarounds using outside management organizations, has been a real-world laboratory of reform experiments for more than a decade.

    By studying the successes and failures of the District's recent efforts to turn around academically underachieving schools, a team of researchers wants to create a body of knowledge that all schools can use to improve.

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