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Finding the Light Within

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Stetson19.jpgAs editor of this site, I must disclose that I hesitated before writing the headline that appears on this week's Cover Story.  I called it "The Stetson Miracle." though not without pausing to ask myself: Was I overstating the case?

I plead not guilty. What has happened at this majority Latino school in North Philly is miraculous, certainly by the micrometer we use to measure success in public schools.

In one year, it went from being a persistently dangerous, out-of-control, chronically underperforming public school to a safe, orderly charter school where the focus - the intense and undivided focus - is on learning.

What attracted us to Stetson were the particulars of the case. Last year, it was a failing public school, so much so that the district decided to hand over operations to the Latino education/advocacy group ASPIRA. So, this year it is a charter school - but it is in the same building, has the same students, the same principal and a number of the same teachers. What made the difference?

Connie Langland is a smart and experienced reporter with more than 30 years of experience covering education.  She isn't given to gushing.  But, her story captures her enthusiasm over the changes at Stetson.  And the key is her description of what happens in the halls when classes change.

There is no mayhem.  There is no sense that, at any moment, a mob of children can spin out of control. There is  - oddly and significantly - silence.

If all we wanted of these children was discipline, silence and obedience, then we would declare Stetson a success story. 

But, we want and we need more. These are children from a desperately poor section of Philadelphia.  Most of them were born and live in Fairhill, the epicenter of the city's growing Latino community with an abundance of poverty, broken homes, broken families, and a cancerous underclass culture that can snuff out hope. (For additional evidence, see our recent Cover Story on young Latino males.)

What is significant about Stetson is that it offers an answer to the vexing question: What can be done to break this cycle of poverty and despair?

The answer is learning.  The answer is education.  The answer is a combination of self-discipline, a yearning for more. and a belief in self that allows you to stand and say: I can do better.

It would be a mistake to read these stories and conclude that all that is needed is increased discipline and order in the schools.  Order and discipline are only the beginning. And what is working at Stetson may not work elsewhere.

But order is only one small part of the equation. Once it is established, what is needed is faith.  The climate at Stetson provides structure for children whose lives often lack structure. But, it does not provide purpose to those lives. That comes from another source.

You need to believe in the potential of these students - even though the potential is often hidden by their circumstances and their poverty. As the Quakers say, you must draw from them the light within.

What ASPIRA brings to the table is belief.  A belief that these children should succeed. And an expectation that they work hard at achieving that success.  Discipline, order, hard work and faith.  It's an old formula applied to new and desperate circumstances.

It won't be easy.  Many of these children perform below their grade level.  Reading is especially a problem.  The results for standardized testing for this year is not in, but everyone at the school expects an improvement.  Still, Stetson is likely to still be close to the bottom in terms of math and English.  This journey it not over.  It has just begun.

Perhaps the faith invested in these children is misguided. They may be destined to fail. But I would say this.  Before, they were governed by a system that assumed they would fail.  Now, there is hope. And that may be the real miracle at Stetson.

 

-- Tom Ferrick

 

 

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