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Turning Around Troubled Urban Schools in Houston and Philadelphia

Houston's Apollo 20 schools and Philadelphia's Renaissance Schools were highlighted in a Thursday panel on innovative approaches to school district reform, a part of the Council of the Great City Schools conference in Boston.

The Apollo 20 schools were created in partnership with the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University to inject charter school management concepts into district-run schools and bring in such programs as tutoring for every 6th and 9th grade student in an Apollo school. The Renaissance model in Philadelphia turned some schools over to charter managers. Others became "Promise Academies," a district-run reform model.

The 3-year, $56 million Apollo schools effort has seen some growth in math test scores, though in reading the results are mixed, according to Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is working with the district and evaluating the results.

Paula Harris, a member of the Houston board of education, said the district is "very encouraged" by the results thus far. But at the end of the presentation, she offered advice to other school districts not to hang their hats too much on one splashy reform effort.

"People would say, what about my school? What are you doing about low performing students in another school? So you have to be careful," Harris said.

The Philadelphia Renaissance schools have seen test score gains, as spelled out in an extensive post in the Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook website. Some schools saw double-digit gains in math.

Leroy Nunery, the interim superintendent in Philadelphia, said that it's important to pick a reform and stick to it. The Renaissance Schools project was an initiative of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who resigned earlier this year.

"Many of you are already doing turnarounds, and it is hard to replicate someone else's model in your town," Mr. Nunery said. "The only thing you can do is to take the things you think will work and stick to them. As soon as you start to wiggle and waver, the model changes."

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