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Comeback School Misses Mark

Ohanian Comment: In the new federal "turn around" scheme, you'll never be good enough. It's rather mind-boggling to cede the whole school over to Universal Cos--using our tax dollars.

This school description is from the Universal Cos site. Look at the priorities for students: uniforms and longer school day.

Promise Neighborhood Partnership
This is also a new model in 2011. The School District and Universal Companies will collaborate "to address education and related needs in a coordinated manner for a targeted area of South Philadelphia--the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods." Universal Companies received a planning grant to investigate creating a Promise Neighborhood, inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone. Several details of this model are still being worked out, but the features described in the fact sheet include:

* Staffing will be handled by the charter management organization (Universal Companies).
* The school will be governed by a School Advisory Council and Charter Board as well as the SRC.
* Students will have a longer school day.
* Family activities will be provided.
* Students will wear uniforms.
* The school will offer college and career exploration opportunities.
* The school will offer parent workshop and educational opportunities.

Wouldn't you like to see some sort of track record in education--theory and practice--before turning over a whole school to them?

Philadelphia School Boasts Improvement, But District Enlists Charter to Finish Job

by Joe Barrett

PHILADELPHIA—Long-troubled Audenried High School, once known locally as the Prison on the Hill, today boasts a new, $55 million building, a crop of dedicated young teachers and sharply higher test scores.

So when the school district announced in January that Audenried would be shut down, parents were surprised. Audenreid, they were told, would become one of 18 "turnaround" schools in the city.

Progress had been made in the school, but not enough, officials said. While scores have risen sharply, they fall short of the city's average, along with other performance measures. Major discipline problems at the school last year included the beating of a female student in a classroom.

On practice tests for state achievement exams in February, 37% of Audenried juniors were rated advanced or proficient in math; in language arts, 39%. By comparison, just 2.3% of juniors were proficient in math and 7.8% in reading on the state tests in 2005, the year the school closed.

David Weiner, associate superintendent of academics, notes that the scores are still below the city's average of around 50%. "We have not done enough to support the students," he said.

Audenried is now slated to reopen in September under charter-school operator Universal Cos., a Philadelphia nonprofit founded by music producer Kenny Gamble. Universal aims to improve the school through a federal Promise Neighborhoods grant that ties together housing, health care and other programs to help children succeed.

The U.S. has spent decades and billions of dollars trying to right its lowest-performing schools and the efforts are often contentious. A new urgency to improve education, with debates over charter schools and America's global competitiveness, is adding pressure to this combustible brew.

Some parents at Audenried are angry because they didn't have a say in the decision. Others worry about giving the campus to Universal, which has never run a high school.

"This is gambling with our children's future," said Bernadette Peoples, vice president of the school advisory council and mother of a 10th-grader.

District officials say the Promise Neighborhoods program has the potential to address social problems at the root of many of the school's troubles.

"Change is difficult. It's messy," said Superintendent Arlene Ackerman after a public meeting at district headquarters where there were shouts from the audience, questions about protocol and a 15-minute sideline discussion with a student protester.

"We've made a commitment to fix our failing schools, and we can't afford to wait," the superintendent said.

Some parents and community leaders like Universal's plan but say the district botched efforts to win over the neighborhood. "I can see the plan working if it's completed the way it's set up," said Stacy Thompson, parent of a school sophomore. "If the school district had been a little more transparent from the beginning we wouldn't be where we are today."

Jim Helman, president of the Grays Ferry Committee of Concerned Citizens agreed. Done right, he said, "We might be trying to figure out where to put Arlene Ackerman's statue."

In Philadelphia, 31 schools are undergoing turnarounds, which typically involve layoffs of faculty and staff who are invited to reapply for their jobs, as well as parent participation. Many of Audenried's parents say they feel whipsawed by a battle that pits the current staff, who have worked hard to fix the school, against new reformers with a bigger vision.

In February, after the shut-down plan had been announced, more than 50 of the school's 417 students left classes to protest at the district's headquarters, chanting, "This is our house!"

Two days later, the district moved to fire a 25-year-old English teacher, Hope Moffett, who had publicly questioned the turnaround and provided students with transit tokens for the rally, which officials alleged placed students in danger.

Promise Neighborhoods, based on the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, combines public and private funding and includes after-school programs and parenting workshops. The program's two charter schools have nearly closed the achievement gap between blacks and whites and in some cases closed it.

The Obama administration budgeted $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods in the current fiscal year, but House Republicans have vowed to kill it. Universal, which won a $500,000 study grant last September, is pressing on despite the uncertainty, said Chief Executive Rahim Islam. Universal intends to provide a health-care clinic, multimedia library and adult education classes at Audenried, while lengthening the school day and adding Saturday classes.

Built in the 1930s, the old Audenried, wedged between Interstate 76 and rundown row houses, was plagued by violence and poor performance. In 2008, the new Audenried, with striking yellow steel supports, opened to its first class of freshmen.

Principal Terry Pearsall-Hargett, with 22 years in the Army under her belt, brought in veteran teachers from her old school and hired several from Teach for America, a Peace Corps-like nonprofit that recruits college students to work in troubled schools.

Ms. Moffett is a Teach for America corps member, who said she worked 14-hour days and spent $1,500 of her own money to create a class library. Besides English, she taught an elective on keys to academic success. At the end of the term, she told her students she would stay with them through graduation.

Write to Joe Barrett at joseph.barrett@wsj.com

Wall Street Journal


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