A public school in private hands
Crowds of students who’d left their classes without permission used to prowl the halls of the K8 Clemente Leadership Academy in New Haven, Conn. Students fought, used profanities and verbally abused staff. Teachers spent more time on discipline than instruction. Clemente, long known as a place to send troubled students, sunk under the weight of low expectations to become one of New Haven’s lowest-performing schools.
In 2011, the New Haven School District hired a private, for-profit company, Renaissance School Services, to turn the school around—but without making it a charter. It’s an uncommon arrangement—of the approximately 2,100 schools run by profit and nonprofit companies in the U.S., only 4 percent are not charters, according to statistics kept by the National Education Policy Center at Western Michigan University.
Under a four-year contract, the New Jersey-based company is paid a $400,000 annual fee that is covered by a federal School Improvement Grant. The school itself remains under the auspices of the district’s finance, human resources and IT departments, but the school’s leadership positions are all handled by Renaissance employees.
“By having a management partner like Renaissance, you then have a separate organization that’s fully and entirely focused on the success of that school,” says Garth Harries, superintendent of the New Haven Public Schools. “There’s a singularity of focus; and there’s also a push for performance.”
Renaissance has taken over about 30 other schools, most of which have become charters. The company’s president, Richard O’Neill, compares school turnarounds to medical care. A person can get checkups and be treated for minor illnesses by a general practitioner, he says. But someone with a more serious illness, like cancer, has to see a specialist. Renaissance is that specialist and its methods have been successful, O’Neill says, because most districts can’t develop the depth of resources and skills to turn failing schools around.
“We don’t believe it’s possible for a building-level set of people to turn a failing school around because the operating demands during the school year are so great—they don’t have ability to step back and research,” he says. “It requires a team of other people to come in and direct the activity of the change that needs to be put in place.”
The key is that Renaissance specialists outside the school provide the policies, strategies, and even the company’s own software to enhance the curriculum and crack down on discipline problems, O’Neill says. “We have had to develop tools that don’t exist in a conventional district’s arsenal of things to deploy, which is why failing schools have been resistant to district change in a vast number of experiences,” he says.
Under the company’s model, the three top administrators at Clemente—a new principal, an achievement specialist, and an operations specialist—work directly for Renaissance. Teachers and staff remain employees of New Haven School District.
When Renaissance took over, its agreement with the New Haven AFT gave faculty members the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to stay at Clemente, and about 25 percent of the staff chose to leave for other jobs in the district. In evaluating the remaining faculty, Renaissance cut another 50 percent, though those employees were assigned jobs elsewhere in the New Haven district.
“When we came in we had full support of the New Haven AFT,” O’Neill says. “We agreed to work with the district talent pool in terms of filling vacancies. In some hard-to-fill positions, we did our own recruitment.”
Nearly three years after Renaissance’s turnaround work began, Clemente Leadership Academy is showing signs of progress. On a recent visit, the halls were clear, clean and orderly. Children passing in the halls smiled at administrators. In classrooms, students were paying attention and seemed eager to answer teachers’ questions.
And suspensions are down, allowing school leaders to intensify their focus on academics. “The culture is the first and most important thing,” says Harries, who in his former role as New Haven’s assistant superintendent for portfolio and performance management was involved in selecting Renaissance to run Clemente.
“We have strengthened the student, staff and parent culture. We’ve seen some gains in academic performance—that’s been a little more mixed at this point. That’s something we’re paying close attention to.”
Suspensions have dropped during the past three school years that Renaissance has been running Clemente. There were only two out-of-school suspensions in September and October, compared to 42 in September and October of 2012 and 81 during that time period in 2011, says Principal Pam Franco.
One area where Renaissance breaks with convention is its belief that the principal should not be in charge of instruction. The principal’s primary job is to improve the climate and culture of a school, and because behavioral problems are likely to get elevated to the principal anyway, there is no need to create a vice principal-level position to oversee discipline, O’Neill says. “The principal should set the tone for the building,” he says.
Franco says her top priority during the first year of the turnaround effort was to drastically reduce the discipline problems that plagued the school to create an environment where teachers could teach and students could learn. “I have never been in a school that was so chaotic when I first arrived,” says Franco, a veteran administrator of public and charter schools. “I have never seen so much violence than when I first arrived.”
Franco works directly with Renaissance’s state managing director, Dominique Taylor, who is at the school on a weekly basis. Central to Renaissance’s discipline strategy is extensive and detailed tracking of student behavior. It even created its own student information system to handle that data.
The system not only tracks how many times a student is referred to administrators for behavioral problems, but also tracks which teachers are making the referrals. And the three teachers who make the most referrals over a certain period of time get extra scrutiny to determine if the referrals they are making are appropriate or if they need more training in classroom management. The data also could show that a student’s behavioral problems are occurring only in a specific class. This gives administrators more insight when attempting to correct behaviors.
For example, students with chronic behavioral problems—such as those disrupting classes on a daily basis—are put on a “hot list” and assigned a case manager who will meet with parents and bring in psychologists and other counselors, if necessary. The case manager also will develop a behavior plan that sets goals for the student. Renaissance specialists have monthly meetings to review students on the hot list.
An average district, in which most of the schools are performing adequately, would be wasting its resources to develop this level of data gathering, O’Neill says. “It would be unwise of a district to use resources to build this expertise for one or two schools that are not doing well,” O’Neill says.
“The district needs to pour resources into schools that are doing well.” Teachers say that, before Renaissance took over, their disciplinary decisions were not always supported by administrators. For example, they might punish a student but get overruled by the front office. That has now changed.
“Before, all we did was try to discipline kids because there was no one else to discipline them, and we lost focus on teaching,” says Melissa Ugolik, a second grade teacher who has been at the school for six years. “Now, there’s so much more help and support, and we have an incredible amount of time for learning.”
Clemente’s scores on the state-mandated Connecticut Mastery Test, or CMT, actually slipped a few points after Renaissance’s first full school year. The school gained those two points back last school year, the same year in which scores across the state dropped due to the adoption of Common Core standards, O’Neill says. “In certain grade levels we had spectacular growth,” he says. “Our performance in middle school was not what we wanted to see.”
Fifth graders made big jumps in reading and math on the CMT, and it’s the only grade in which Clemente has hit the averages for the New Haven district. CMT results were mixed in the higher grades, with some grades making gains in some subjects and falling behind in others.
Some of Clemente’s students were so far behind when Renaissance took over that even though their test scores are now improving, they have not yet reached proficiency. But even a little improvement can inspire students to work harder, says Lori DellaPietra, Clemente’s achievement specialist, which is a vice-principal-level position created by Renaissance.
"It’s definitely slow going,” DellaPietra says. “Now we have students who are making their academic goals, and they see this as something beyond coming to school just because they have to. The kids are actually able to find joy in learning again.”
Curriculum is one of the areas where Renaissance has the greatest flexibility to differentiate itself from New Haven’s public schools. DellaPietra works closely with Sarba Aguda, Renaissance’s state director of curriculum and instruction, who is in the school on a weekly basis. Together, they track academic performance and look for areas to enhance the New Haven curriculum to meet the needs of Clemente’s students.
For example, Clemente uses a program called Accelerated Reader that is designed to encourage independent reading. Students spend a half-hour reading each day and then take a test on books they’ve read. Accelerated Reader is not used in other New Haven schools, says Principal Franco.
Renaissance uses its own database to tabulate students’ scores on the CMTs, the MAP test and New Haven district assessments. Those scores generate an achievement matrix in which students are placed into three tiers. In the first tier are students doing well with just classroom instruction. In the second tier are students who need some extra help, and in the third tier are students who need more intensive intervention, both in and outside their classrooms.
For instance, there is a group to help kindergarteners learn their letters. Older students get help outside regular classes several times a week using a reading program called Benchmark. Benchmark uses levelled books and visual organizers to help students develop critical reading skills like finding the main idea, summarizing, and making predictions and inferences about the text, Aguda says.
The achievement matrix is also used to set goals for each student. Clemente is pushing students to make a year-and-a-half’s worth of progress each school year, which is measured by taking the mean, annual grade-level gain on the national MAP test and multiplying that by 1.5, O’Neill says.
Some 85 percent of Clemente’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Because many low-income students come to school with a limited vocabulary than other students, Clemente’s curriculum also puts a greater emphasis on vocabulary than does the New Haven district as a whole. Students focus on a list of vocabulary words each week, and instruction is crafted around the list. “It’s more of a community of learning than ever before,” says Cara Cuticello, a literacy coach who’s in her seventh year at Clemente. “Kids want to be in class.”
“I love working here,” adds fourth grade teacher Joan Meehan. “It is a lot of work, and it takes the right type of teacher. In a school that’s a turnaround, where students are so behind, you have to do even more as a teacher.”
Academic progress will be the major factor in determining whether or not Renaissance has a continuing role with Clemente after the company’s four-year management contract expires in June 2015, Superintendent Harries says.
Both Harries and Renaissance’s O’Neill say they sense the company will have some level of involvement with the school, and O’Neill says it may come at a lower cost to the district.
“The future depends pretty heavily on the academic achievement,” Harries says.
A major priority for this school year is to get parents more involved in the school. The long-dormant PTO has been revived, though it’s being asked to be involved in school activities rather than be a fundraising engine.
Principal Franco says the school plans to hold workshops for parents who want to improve their computer skills. Other workshops will cover academic subjects so parents can help their children with homework. The school also is planning family fun nights, a few of which will be based on academics while a few will just be for fun—like bingo night.
Henry Morton, a New Haven native and parent of a second grader, became the PTO president in November. He said he was very concerned about his daughter attending Clemente when she started three years ago, but, he says, the school has made vast improvements since. He also says he would like to see more parents get involved in school activities.
“If we were on the ground floor then, we’re on the fifth floor now,” Morton says of the progress. “It’s been smooth sailing and it’s going up.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.