The more I read about school reform here in Philadelphia, the more it feels like an episode of the Food Network show, Restaurant Impossible. For those who have never seen it, picture a professional restauranteur swooping in to turnaround a failing restaurant with his years of experience and no-nonsense attitude.

The changes that the host, Robert Irvine, makes usually include a changing of the guard, renovations of the current dining room, menu curation, tightening up of management, and more often than not, tears. Having experienced a school turnover from the inside, the metaphor really hits the mark. The first thing we found out when our school was declared a “Renaissance School” was that we were all going to be force transferred. In addition, just as Irvine renovates the dining room, the turnaround charters invest a lot of money in capital improvements as can be seen in this video of the Grover Cleveland Elementary turnaround school from the local news. The school I taught in had holes in the wall, broken heat, broken bathrooms and overall deplorable conditions. In fact, so deplorable, it was, in my eyes, a civil rights issue. Through outside funding, charter networks can make improvements that the school district never could.

In addition to capital improvements, these schools also experience a change in curriculum as well as discipline programs (their ‘menu’). The larger networks also bring in new management, most of which are highly-groomed and prepared administrators from within the network. These administrators employ their charter network’s motto, which usually includes some iteration of “No Excuses” and includes some kind of reference to “Success.”

All great changes for a school that has been continuously failing to meet its students’ needs year after year.

The metaphor falls short, however, in a few places. For one, Irvine gives each of the existing staff a chance to prove their worth as a leader or with their cooking skills. This is never the case with a Renaissance School. It is assumed that the school is failing because of the awful teachers that work there, so they all must go (and, I might add, be replaced with young, inexperienced staff). The biggest place that the metaphor falls short is in the fact that Irvine works with the current owners to fully understand their vision for their restaurant and to help them improve their own business practices to save their restaurant. Were Irvine to follow the Renaissance School model, he would strut in, fire everyone and sell the business to Bobby Flay.

Still, I’m pretty sure that Bluford Elementary is a safer, higher performing school than it was when I left it. So what’s my beef, really?

After experiencing Mastery Charter classroom management training I can say that their model is not brain surgery. They have packaged a variety of well-respected methods (imagine a formulaic blend of Responsive Classroom without the morning meetings and Harry Wong) and have provided extensive training for their teachers that includes reviewing video taped lessons with teachers. What Mastery has (and I’m sure many of the other turnaround school charter companies have as well) is the funding to do what the Philadelphia School District can’t: repair buildings, offer extensive coaching and support as well as provide highly-trained and indoctrinated administrative teams.

An unsettling aspect of this large-scale turnaround movement is the fact that, as I wrote about earlier this year, all of these schools essentially look the same. KIPP, Mastery and even Uncommon Schools use the same vocabulary (like ‘grit’), have the same college-ready focus and even use the same management techniques (acronyms like “SLANT” and “STAR” to describe what ‘academic posture’ looks like). The other thing they all have in common? They are all located in urban areas and pride themselves on offering real opportunities to urban kids.

I’m not arguing that they don’t.

But what they don’t offer is true school choice. What happens to our urban school system when every school is a KIPP or a Mastery school? What real choices will our students have? I’ve seen videos of Mastery and Uncommon School classrooms. Rows, silence, little to no group work, teacher-directed, teacher-centered instruction. These are highly-structured and tightly controlled classrooms. Which work for many kids, but not for all. I know that many of  my inner city, North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia students would blossom in a Quaker/Friends style school or a school modeled after Quest2Learn. To make matters worse, Mastery Charter just received a huge grant to take their practices to other schools around the city. The more we allow our neighborhood public schools to be turned over to these large charter networks, the less choice our students really have.

As many changes that Robert Irvine makes when he comes in to rescue restaurants in trouble, he also helps them maintain their own identity as a restaurant and empowers the owners with the tools they need to succeed. Where is that kind of support for our struggling neighborhood schools? How can we ensure that we empower our neighborhood schools to succeed and provide a variety of educational offerings that meet the desires of the community in which they are housed?

  2 Responses to “EdReform Impossible”

  1. What choices did the parent of Bluford have before it was a Mastery school? Did Bluford becoming a Renaissance school all of a sudden eliminate school options? Take a look at the new Edmunds charter school. It’s not the canned franchise approach of the other providers.

    • Hi John,

      I agree that the String Theory schools provide a promising model for communities facing the turnover of their neighborhood school. Still, I worry that the turnaround process sends the message that schools are beyond hope, that the staff at the schools are incompetent (99% of the time it is the leadership of the school that is the issue). It also siphons the community off from the District, as charters operate as their own districts. One of the things that was really hard when I left the District was leaving the network, the resources and the community.

      Bluford never became a Mastery School, as the Parent Advisory Board chose Universal Companies over Mastery. As for eliminating all options, the school had no option once it was labeled a “Renaissance School” except to be taken over by a charter operator. At that time (the first round) there were few options. The problem is that it is hard to get such a large contract as a Renaissance School without a proven track record, which most of the network charters have. Also, the network schools spend a lot of money on advertising and community outreach when a school is ‘up for sale’ that a small, independent charter couldn’t afford.

      Please understand that I am in no way claiming that ALL charters are ‘canned franchises.’ I have friends that work at wonderful charter schools in the city. However, if you look at the numbers, Mastery runs a HUGE percentage of schools here in Philly and, as far as I know, plans on continuing taking over schools as they put into turnaround mode.

      Thanks for your comment and for pointing out the String Theory model.

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