Ferrick@Fels: Charter Schools Provide New Opportunity

November 09, 2011

By Tom Ferrick Jr.

The cliché is that there are no magic bullets in turning around failing schools.  That it takes time, effort and many years to make progress.

Alfredo Calderon and his team as ASPIRA are proving that cliché wrong.

In the last two years, ASPIRA, a Latino advocacy group in Philadelphia, has taken over two of the city's most troubled public schools -- Stetson Middle School and Olney High School -- and it has achieved remarkable progress at both in just a short time.

There are many elements to this tale, but it begins with the insight by the folks at ASPIRA about another axiom of education: 10 percent of the students cause 90 percent of the disruptions.

So, why not remove them from the classroom? Without the few acting out, it would be far easier to establish a climate for learning for the 90 percent of children who remain.

But, what do with this 10 percent?  The district allowed ASPIRA to change both Stetson and Olney into charter schools, but with one proviso:  it had to take every student within the schools boundaries who showed up.  The schools could not pick and choose.  Nor could they simply toss out the bad actors. They had to keep them, too. ASPIRA went out and hired Success Schools, a for-profit company in Yardley, Pa. that specializes in programs for underachieving and troubled young people.

Stetson, which ASPIRA took over September, 2010, was the first to employ the firm. They created a Success Academy on the top floor of the middle school on Lehigh Avenue, identified the problematic students, and sent them there.  It amounted, interestingly enough, to about 10 percent of all the students.

As to Stetson writ large, Calderon said they instituted a policy of "shock and awe" when they first took over.  Students were given uniforms to wear; teachers and security staff patrolled the halls and oversaw arrival and dismissal.  Calderon described the atmosphere as "very militaristic." It reminded me of the Catholic-school model of decorum and behavior, only without nuns with clickers.

If Stetson became a boot camp, the Success Academy became its Paris Island, with discipline to the power of 10. The students in the academy had to remain silent in the halls, walk with their hands behind their back, and woe betide a student who strayed from the straight and narrow.  He or she would be "redirected" by staff in intense sit-down sessions where their behavior was dealt with.  They also created student-run tribunals to hear cases of misbehavior. If this sound Orwellian to you, it did to me, too, when I first heard about it.  But, we knew something interesting was going on at Stetson and I asked Connie Langland, a long-time education reporter, to take a close look at Stetson for Metropolis.

We headlined the story she wrote The Stetson Miracle and it was not hyperbole. By the end of the last school year, Stetson was a peaceable kingdom. Suspensions had dropped from 500 in its last year as a public school to 47 (The school has 670 students). Violent incidents had gone from 100 to 10. Parents and even the owner of the pizza shop across the street marveled at the transformation of the children.

In the state standardized tests given to all students, Stetson's scores increased by 8 points in reading and 22 points in math in just one year.  Let's not overstate the case: most Stetson students perform at levels below their peers around the state, but progress is being made.

Remarkably, the students responded well to the changes.  They seemed to embrace the new structure given to their lives. 

Even more remarkably, Langland found that students in the Success Acadeny responded positively as well.  For one thing, they liked the individualized attention. Some of them, it turned out, were the brightest students in the school. Calderon told me that some of the students who were the biggest troublemakers under the previous regime had emerged as student leaders.

Freed of the strictures of the contract (Stetson is not unionized, though 33 percent of the former teachers did stay on), Stetson offers a longer school day, more instructional time, and holds regular early a.m. teacher conferences to discuss individual students.

Calderon mentioned one other intangible:  ASPIRA is a Latino organization. Stetson is a majority Latino school.  The organization entered the fray with a belief that the students could achieve -- and with the demand that they do.  As Calderon put it, ASPIRA does not do not consider it a success if the schools are safe and orderly.  They want academic results.

This September ASPIRA took over Olney High School from the district -- and my question was: how will this "shock and awe" work in a larger school (Olney has 1,600 students) and with 16-18 year olds, as opposed to the tweens at Stetson.

Langland went to Olney and spent several weeks talking to students, teachers and parents. The initial reports are that Olney, too, has turned around in a just a few months, using the same range of tools employed at Stetson -- "shock and awe," strict discipline, a Success Academy, more instructional time, with a school day that goes from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.

And word is spreading.  School began in September.  It is now November.  So far, Olney has gotten applications from the parents of 189 students who are attending other public high schools who want to transfer to Olney.
Sometimes it pays to ignore the old clichés.

Photograph by Peter Tobia

Tom Ferrick, Jr., a journalist with more than 35 years of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist,is writing a regular column to keep the greater Fels community tuned in to Philadelphia. He is currently Senior Editor at Metropolis, a website offering in-depth news, analysis, and commentary about the Philadelphia region.

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