Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


The Stetson Miracle

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By Connie Langland

Listen to a Metropolis podcast about the Stetson experiment.\


See the end of this story for a post-script about Stetson's performance in the latest PSSA tests.

Just a year ago, John B. Stetson Middle School was in deep trouble. Assaults. Suspensions. Disruptions. Its students among the lowest performing in the city. Labeled "persistently dangerous." The School District of Philadelphia acknowledged as much - and turned over the keys of the mostly Latino school to a charter group, ASPIRA of Pennsylvania. Stetson was a problem child in need of reform school, and that's what it got - reforms and renovations that stretched from fresh paint and new desks to a longer work day for teachers to a strictly enforced code of conduct for students.

Sucess Academy students.jpgAnd to deal with the most aggressive and disruptive students--the ones other schools suspend or expel--Stetson's fourth floor was renovated to house a school-within-a-school, the Success Academy. Students assigned there--just over a 10th of the school's 670 students--get close supervision and frequent prompts to curb problematic behavior. The result: Stetson has expelled one and suspended four students this school year compared with 20 expulsions and about 500 suspensions in 2009-10.

Now, as observed in the course of four recent visits, this is what you'll find at the renamed John B. Stetson Charter School:  Quiet in the hallways. Students taking on extra responsibilities and talking about their futures. Parents pleased.  Order, not mayhem, on the sidewalks around the 80-year-old building at B and Allegheny, in the mostly Hispanic, altogether poor Fairhill section. And by all accounts - though no PSSA results, yet--teachers are seeing gains in the classroom. Expectations are high that testing will show strides if not leaps in student achievement.

Stetson offers hope to those who despair of school reform. It has the same building, the same students, the same principal and about 30 percent of the same teachers as it had when it was a district-run school. Yet, the school has not only turned around, it has done so rapidly and dramatically. Students, parents, staff--even the pizzeria owner across the street--all attest to the improvements.

"From last year to this year, there's been a big change. You learn more, there're not so many distractions," said Gianna Reyes, 12, a 6th grader. Is the school too strict? "Not at all," said Gianna. "You should be doing the right thing."

The student population is the same - the 5th to 8th grade school must accept all students in its neighborhood--but perceptions and attitudes are changing.

Increased numbers of students are applying to special-admit high schools, noted Principal Renato Lajara, who had been at the helm for two years when ASPIRA took over last August. The Latino social service group also runs two other charter schools and one virtual school. In bidding this spring, ASPIRA won a contract to run chronically troubled Olney East and West high schools.

And Alfredo Calderon, ASPIRA's executive director, said the school has succeeded in changing students' "mentality."  "Now it's cool to learn, cool to be geeky. They feel safe. They see that everybody else is learning and they say, `I want to do this,'" he said.

How did ASPIRA's team go about changing Stetson? Calderon said the initial goal was to create "shock and awe" to signal it was a new day. 

The first order of business was to restore discipline. Over the summer, Stetson staff had identified returning students with chronic behavior issues and assigned them to the Success Academy.  And all students learned the details of the dress and conduct code at the very start of the school year. The rules were strictly enforced last fall but loosened somewhat once students bought into the new order.

 "We wanted to create a private school atmosphere, with private school looks, so we have uniforms. Shirts must be tucked in, belts worn," Lajara said. The school looks sharp, with a digital signboard inside the school's entrance adding a high-tech touch. The rooms, bathrooms and hallways are clean and graffiti-free.

Lajara 1.jpgA security guard greets visitors and monitors hallways via video -ASPIRA installed 75 security cameras in and around the building. When classes are in session, halls are deserted; no students can be spotted wandering about--commonplace in out-of-control buildings.

But behaviors acquired over the years took time to change--five to six weeks, by Lajara's estimation. Students who continued to act up got reassigned to Success.

"Before, you had children hitting teachers. Now, you won't even hear students talking loud," said Vilma Cartagena, mother of 8th grader Brian Rodriguez and a member of the school's advisory council.

Last year, said Carmen Fernandez, her son Manuel "was skipping school, fighting, angry, truant" at another city middle school. He transferred to Stetson for 8th grade. "He came here with that attitude. It was like a reality check. It took about two months but now he comes to school to learn," Fernandez said.

Academics came next. ASPIRA has adopted a new curriculum for Stetson and hired Catapult Learning to work with the many students struggling with reading. According to Lajara, more than three-quarters of the teachers meet weekly in small groups to review how their students are performing and brainstorm about ways to improve learning. Teacher leaders and master teachers work with classroom teachers to hone teaching skills.

Reading is the school's biggest challenge, with only one in five students reading at grade level, so the school devotes extra resources and time to the subject, according to Lajara.

 And data analysis of student performance is integral to monitoring whether learning goals are being met. "We explain the data to our kids," said Calderon. "We believe children can be more responsible for their learning than we give them credit for."

Assembly photo.jpgThese are virtually the same children as the school drew last year - ASPIRA's contract with the district requires it to accept all students in the neighborhood. There are no special admission requirements, lottery or selection process that tend to give charter and private schools an edge in terms of student focus and parent involvement.

The teachers and staff at Stetson are there by mutual agreement; 60 percent of the district-hired staff left when the school became a charter Teachers at Stetson are relatively young--late 20s, by Lajara's estimate. And they have bought into a couple of routines that are both startling to observe and quite effective in asserting control. Morning and afternoon, Stetson teachers and senior staff step outside, in groups of twos and threes, to greet the children and, later, send them ambling toward home. Last year, shoving matches and fights would break out on the sidewalk, within sight of teachers still in their classrooms. This spring, even a loose shirttail merited a rebuke. "You're still on school property," one teacher told a child. "Tuck it in."

"These people are doing such a great job," said Iyad Mohammad, owner of Ozzy Pizza Shop at B and Westmoreland Streets. Before, "There was no security. The school was a mess. Now they have security. Teachers should feel safe. This is the most important thing. Every school should be like this."

Inside Stetson, teachers lead their charges from one class to the next, maintaining control in hallways where mayhem used to rule.

The result, in the opinion of Robert J. Lysek, chief operations officer of Success Schools, is that teachers have gained 10 or more minutes in instruction per class period because they no longer have to spend that time calming students and maintaining control.

The disorder was exhausting, said Lysek: "The kids ran the building. The adults were worn out." Now, with close supervision in all sectors of the building, children are compelled to rein in behavior, to "move at slow speed," he said.

Teachers are in agreement: the removal of unruly students from their classrooms as well as a general sense of order has changed the game.

Isaac Hebron, 6th grade math and science teacher, can fall into a virtual swoon describing the change. Teaching still has its challenges, said Hebron, but he's now able to "focus on the 20 students in the room, not the four problem students. "

Dance teacher George Dennis agreed, describing the rejuvenated learning environment as being like "night and day" for teachers. Previously, disruptions made teaching and learning difficult, he said. "It was a hard place for kids to learn. Troubled kids ... demanded all the attention." All in all, he said, it's been a good year. Last year this time, he said, teachers were "frustrated, burnt out." This spring, as the end of the school year approaches, Dennis acknowledged that teachers are tired. "But it's because we have been doing so much teaching, not because we've had to deal with all the nonsense."

Students, too, have begun playing a role in maintaining school order. With a look, a gesture, or a few words, students admonish their peers to stay in line, stop the horseplay, or settle down for class. These are students who want to gain Intern, Stallion (the school mascot) or Executive status and become class leaders.

ASPIRA's idea last summer was to spend the entirety of this school year changing the climate at Stetson - the upgrades, the uniforms, the opening of the Success Academy, strict discipline in all classrooms. But it took just weeks. Even Lajara was taken aback. "How this transformation happened--it was a surprise to me," the principal said.

After lunch one day recently, Hebron's students walked in single file from the cafeteria up two flights of stairs toward their classroom. As they approached their room, Hebron ducked into an office down the hall for a few moments. The 6th graders began to take their seats, with minor commotion.

"Everybody stay quiet," called out Gabriella Torres, 12.

"Go back to what you were doing," added Hector Cruz, also 12.

And they did. 

Postscript filed September 28th:

In June we profiled the turnaround at Stetson Middle School, formerly run by the school district but now run by Aspira of Pennsylvania Hispanic advocacy group. The school had been labeled as failing academically and also as "persistently dangerous" and was among seven schools handed off to charter groups in then Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Renaissance school improvement plan.

Aspira and Stetson principal Renata Lajara focused on improving school safety and climate -- and won rave reviews from parents, teachers and students on that score. The question unanswered was whether academic achievement would improve, at least as measured by the state PSSA math and reading tests.

This week, that questions appears to have been answered. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook obtained preliminary PSSA results from the charter groups running the seven Renaissance schools, and all showed gains on those make-or-break tests. Stetson showed a 22-point jump in math and an 8-point gain in reading. However, even with the gains, half of Stetson's test-takers failed to achieve proficiency in math, and only one-third of the test-takers reached proficiency in reading.

PSSA results for all schools in the state are due for release any day.

Connie Langland




Photos: Peter Tobia

Read excerpts of an interview with ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon about Stetson and the goals of his organization.

Listen to a Metropolis podcast about the Stetson experiment.


 Tommorrow: The 'boot camp' that helps turn disruptive students into students.


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