Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, has encouraged school districts to adopt bold strategies to improve the nation's worst-performing high schools, including converting them into charter schools.
Only a handful of districts have chosen the charter option. A recent report from a Washington think tank said Philadelphia and Los Angeles were in the forefront.
"Philadelphia has much to teach the nation," Cynthia Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, said when the center released its report.
According to "Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around the Nation's Dropout Factories," results from Philadelphia's Mastery Charter Schools and Los Angeles' Green Dot Public Schools suggest charter conversions can boost college readiness and graduation rates.
The charter leaders focus on changing school culture, raising expectations, forging ties with parents, and offering intensive college counseling.
The report, written by Melissa Lazarin, the center's former associate director of education policy, stresses the importance of clearly defining the parameters of charters' authority to ensure that they maintain the flexibility and independence that have helped them succeed.
"For me, the reason that it might be working in these two places is that charters are getting a lot of autonomy about important things, like staffing, budgeting, and how they operate their school day," Lazarin said.
In return, she said, charter operators agree to enroll all neighborhood students who attended the schools when they were district-operated.
The hiring autonomy at charter conversions has stirred controversy. In Los Angeles, the teachers' union challenged a decision to give two more schools to Green Dot. In Philadelphia, although teachers at district schools that Mastery converts can apply to remain, few have. Those who do go through the same rigorous screening as other Mastery applicants, including teaching a sample lesson.
The report's findings are especially timely as Mastery and two other Philadelphia charter groups prepare to turn four district high schools into charters next month as part of Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's Imagine 2014 initiative.
The district provides per-student funding; the charter operators rent the buildings.
Mastery is taking over Gratz in North Philadelphia. Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, a Latino educational organization, plans to combine Olney East and Olney West into one charter high school with small learning communities.
And Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos. will convert Audenried into a charter as part of Universal's effort to create a Promise Neighborhood in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry with educational, social service, and health programs.
At Gratz and Olney, committees with school and community members helped select the operators that will run their schools for five years.
There was less early community involvement at Audenried, and news that the district would give the school to Universal as a "Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter" triggered protests.
The district teamed with Universal on its application for federal funding. Universal says Audenried will help spur neighborhood transformation.
The makeovers of Gratz, Olney, and Audenried may be the toughest challenge any city charter group has faced.
Ten-year-old Mastery has a successful record running a charter school, converting elementary schools, and transforming three troubled middle schools into seventh-through-12th-grade charters that stress college preparation.
But Gratz will be the first high school that Mastery, a local nonprofit, has tackled.
"Taking on a school as big and troubled as Gratz is significant," said Scott Gordon, Mastery's chief executive officer and founder.
Over the summer, Mastery staff has met with parents, students, community and alumni, and upgraded the building. Returning Gratz teachers make up 20 percent of the staff.
Universal and Aspira run charters they created, and have converted elementary and middle schools into charters. But Olney and Audenried are their first high schools, and they also spent the summer preparing.
In addition to low test scores, Gratz and Olney East and Olney West are on the state's list of "persistently dangerous" schools.
"It's a major, major undertaking," said Alfredo Calderon, executive director of Aspira Pennsylvania, which has held student orientation at Olney. "But we feel we can take on the challenge."
The full report, "Charting New Territory," from the Center for American Progress is available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/06/charter_schools.html