by Coleman Poses
In his swan song to the Board of Education last April, Dr. Chris McGinley requested that the Renaissance model be retired, due to its lack of accountability as well as the fact that schools were being coerced to adopt a model that was based upon school choice. Dr. Fix-Lopez promised to bring a motion before the Board to end the Renaissance program by October. Chairperson Wilkerson stated that the Renaissance evaluation that the district had been performing needed to be made public before a vote could be taken. Dr. Hite, however, prepared a way to continued existence for these schools by stating that policy 141, “The Renaissance Schools Initiative” needed to be “updated”.
At the Policy Committee meeting on September 10, the committee voted to update various charter policies. During this meeting, Committee Chair Maria McColgan kept assuring the charter school advocates on the Zoom that these policy changes had nothing to do with the existence of the renaissance program.
At the meeting, Charter Office head Christina Grant explained that the office was proposing conflating six existing charter school policies into two, and eliminating Policy 141.
Upon questioning by Committee Chair McColgan about how the elimination of Policy 141 would affect the operation and oversight of the Renaissance charters, Ms. Grant stated that these schools would continue to operate in exactly the same fashion that they have always operated, and that the monitoring and authorization of these schools would not change.
Why then, all the fuss about elimination of this policy? A closer look at the policy itself reveals that: “Renaissance Schools shall not exercise selective testing or erect other barriers to admission. All Renaissance Schools must enroll and serve all grade appropriate students that were enrolled at the school at the time of Renaissance School designation. Students who attend or through feeder patterns are slated to attend a school that is designated a Renaissance School shall be guaranteed a seat in the new school, subject to space limitations of the school.”
Was Ms. Grant correct?
Looking at the catchment attendance for the four years of data that are publicly available reveals noteworthy differences between Renaissance and District run schools, with fewer neighborhood children attending the Renaissance charters.
*From 2017 to 2020
Two Case Studies
The diminished catchment numbers at the Renaissance charters not only raise concerns about families no longer having a local school in neighborhoods, but also raise questions about the performance of these schools. An examination of these enrollment figures along with data from the School Progress Reports can help to answer these questions. Since the district has School Progress Report scores going back to 2012 on its Open Data website, and since the John Wister Elementary School and the Samuel P. Huey School were the last two district schools to enter the Renaissance program in 2016-17 school year, these two schools are good candidates to consider how successful the Renaissance program has been since we have three years of data both before and after the takeover date.
John Wister Elementary School
The graphs below depict timelines for (1) SPR scores (2012 – 2019) in Achievement and (2) Percent of school enrollment coming from the catchment area surrounding the Wister Elementary School. For the SPR scores on Achievement, the timeline is divided at 2015-16 school year (the pre-Wister takeover by Mastery) and 2016-17 school year (post-Mastery takeover). Looking at the change of catchment students attending these schools, Wister showed a decrease of about 9%, from 77% in 2016-17 – the time that Mastery first took control of the school – until 2019-20, when in-catchment attendance dropped to 68%.
With regard to the SPR scores on Achievement, the last three years that Wister was a district school, Achievement numbers were 5 in 2013-14, 7 in 2014-15, and 6 in 2015-16, averaging a 6 over 3 years. Under Mastery management, Achievement numbers were 7 in 2016-17, 2 in 2017-18, and 9 in 2018-19, again averaging a 6 over 3 years.
One might argue that Mastery showed an improvement of 3 points from its takeover of Wister in 2016, but this 3 point gain came at the cost of a 9 point drop in catchment enrollment at the school, thereby raising questions of whether the school achievement improved due to an improved educational environment, or higher achieving students from outside of the catchment boundaries. And as depicted in this chart, there was already considerable upward movement in the pre-Renaissance Achievement scores from 4 in 2012-13 to 7 in 2015-16, a 57% increase.
Samuel P. Huey Elementary School
Huey showed a decrease of about 24%, from 78% from the time that Global Leadership Academy (G.L.A.) first took control of the school until 2020, when in-catchment attendance dropped to 54%. It should also be mentioned that in the 2018-19 school year, in-catchment enrollment was down to 41%.
With regard to the SPR scores on Achievement, the last three years that Huey
was a district school, Achievement numbers were 4 in 2013-14, 2 in 2014-15, and 0 in 2015-16, averaging a 2 over 3 years. Under G.L.A. management, Achievement numbers were 1 in 2016-17, 0 in 2017-18, and 1 in 2018-19, averaging a .66 over 3 years.
Although G.L.A. somehow managed to disinvest in the Huey asset that allowed them to gain control of the school – the catchment’s resident students – the company still managed to under-perform pre-take-over Achievement numbers at the school.
Although Mastery’s most recent Achievement scores at Wister are the highest that they have ever been in the published SPR history data, it is difficult to see these scores as being sustainable since these scores have been somewhat erratic since the take-over, particularly in view of the steady progress that the school had made prior to the Mastery’s involvement. The fact that less students from the catchment attend the charter also raises issues of whether Mastery’s intervention has helped students to achieve, or whether the school has recruited higher performing students.
G.L.A.’s intervention at Huey raises even more significant questions, since so few students from the catchment actually attend the school, and since the school has performed so dismally since the take-over.
These two case studies are indicative of what appears to be a larger problem at these Renaissance charters in that there appear to be fewer students from the surrounding catchment areas who attend these schools than what we see at regular district run neighborhood schools.
One interpretation of the Mastery case study is that high performing students from outside of the neighborhood may, for whatever reasons be attracted to the school, thereby leaving less room for neighborhood children to attend the school.
Such an interpretation, however, is unlikely to be the case at GLA Huey, since the Achievement results are so low. In the Huey case, the interpretation might be that the neighborhood families may be attempting to enroll their children at a higher performing school outside of their catchment.
Catchment enrollment therefore does not appear to have ever been a major consideration for the District’s Charter Office, and lack of such enrollment has not affected authorization of these Renaissance schools.
When Ms. Grant stated that the Charter Office’s practices would not change with the elimination of this Policy 141, she was simply stating that these Renaissance charters are just regular charter schools, which is how the program has for the most part, always operated. Ms. Grant was therefore entirely truthful with the Policy Committee, because the Charter Office and the Renaissance Schools have always ignored the residency requirements set down in Policy 141. Since the Charter Office’s practices have always been out of compliance with Policy # 141, the office wants to do away with that policy to align the districts policies with current practices.
This may seem to be a bit like the tail wagging the dog, but by the votes cast at the September 10 policy committee, the full board will no doubt vote for this change in December. Individual board members may have their own reasons for voting for this change, but one reason appears to be a change in thinking about the nature of charter schools and school choice over the years. In the 1990’s there was a strong belief that school choice would have a beneficial effect upon student achievement. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top provided financial incentives to test this hypothesis. When studies failed to identify such benefits, the thinking shifted from school choice as a road to achievement to school choice as a good in itself. Recent policies and statements at both the Federal and State levels have expressed choice as a good in itself. Whereas the Obama administration’s top priority was “Improving Early Learning and Development Outcomes,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s top priority is “Empowering Families to Choose a High-Quality Education that Meets Their Child’s Unique Needs”.
Former State House Speaker Mike Turzai has also echoed these thoughts in a series of op-eds calling for more school choice without offering any statistical documentation for his argument.
This is not to say that any or all of the board members have committed themselves to a school choice philosophy, but that the zeitgeist around choice might be responsible for an indifference toward charters in general and the Renaissance program in particular.
The information that the School District presents to the Board will also influence the Board’s decision to remove Policy # 141. The School District recently released a study performed by Mathematica and Research for Action, which addressed several research questions:
- How did the seven schools that transitioned to a Renaissance Charter or to a district-run turnaround school in 2016-2017 implement the transition? What successes and challenges did the schools encounter?
- Among schools transitioning to a district-run turnaround school or a Renaissance Initiative School between 2013-2014 and 2017-2018, is there evidence that transitioning improved SPR scores?
- Is there evidence of differences in impacts between Renaissance Charter schools and district-run turnaround schools?
- Is there evidence that schools transitioning in different years were more effective at improving SPR measures?
- How did schools change how they allocated funds once they became Renaissance Charter or a district-run turnaround school?
What is missing from this list is any question regarding the original reason for the existence of Renaissance schools: to address the educational needs of the students from that neighborhood. The definition of “neighborhood school” after the Board’s December vote will therefore shift from a school that serves neighborhood children to a school building in a neighborhood.
In the past, the School Board has generally sanctioned, uncritically, such recommendations by the School District. As a result, by 2019, only 22% of the district’s eligible students performed at proficient or above on the PSSA math and 36% are proficient or above on English language Arts; while 20% and 41% performed at least proficiently on the Keystone Algebra I and Literature exams respectively.
The School District’s advocates claim that we cannot accept the status quo, but the Renaissance program has been a part of status quo for the past ten years.
Yet the current School Board is still willing to remove this policy. Instead of improving on the foundations of even moderately performing public schools in need of resources, this school board is prepared to shutter those schools in favor of unproven educational nostrums.