Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Part Two: Takeover at Olney High

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By Connie Langland

Many of the changes at the new Olney Charter High School are apparent to any visitor - bright lighting, fresh paint, safety officers at every turn.

The more dramatic changes, however, are in the realm of what Aspira of Pennsylvania, the Latino charter group that now manages the school, calls "accountability."

School leaders are trying to change the mindset of students who still have clear recollections of how out of control the place used to be when two schools, Olney East and Olney West, shared the space. 

Getting teachers to buy in was an easier undertaking--Aspira laid out expectations during the hiring process.

"Teachers are held accountable. The leaders of the school are being held accountable to lead. Students are being held accountable to be in the classroom," said Alfredo Calderon, Aspira's CEO.

Over the summer, Aspira reached out to students and parents. "We told the students, this is what's coming. We're not tolerating disrespect. We're here to teach. You have to step up to the plate," said Calderon.  The dress code is strictly enforced, and students get detention for lapses in wearing the uniform or being late to school.

Many students embraced the new order; some tried to pretend they still ruled the hallways.

In late September, a visitor to the main office could observe the sassy, overly loud complaints of three girls who had arrived late to school and didn't much care for the consequences.

By late October, the main office was like a sea of tranquility, with the few students who stopped in showing respect and speaking quietly. LaBron Use This.jpg

"Class starts at 9. Our kids should know they got to be there at 9," said principal Jose Lebron. "That's part of changing the culture, to get our kids to realize that it's important to be on time, not just for school but for what awaits them after high school."

Students who are identified as having behavior issues may be reassigned to the Success Academy, where students continue with their coursework but are subject to strict rules and supervision.

For teachers, the school offers a combination of support and scrutiny.

Almost half the teaching staff are first- or second-year teachers. Only about 10 out of a staff of  135 taught at Olney in past years, although 51 have taught in some other public school in the city, according to Lebron. Unlike in district schools, the teachers are not unionized and are hired for a one-year term, with 90 days' probation.  They are expected to arrive at about 8:15 a.m. - well ahead of the 9 a.m. start of school - and to stay until 4 p.m.

Teachers come under frequent scrutiny, with three formal observations and 30 "snapshot" visits by instructional leaders or master teachers, who offer feedback after each visit. The school has seven master teachers, who model good teaching and coach their colleagues.

Nimet Eren, who started at Olney four years ago as a Teach for America participant, teaches AP English each morning and then steps into her role of master teacher.

She endorsed the changes at Olney. "I think in the past decisions were made that did not always put the children first. This year I feel everything that's done is putting the kids first," Eren said. The overhaul in food service, which has students and staff alike raving, is an example. "There is just a sense of respect that our children deserve to eat healthy food. They can think better, they can feel better."

More broadly, the change to a charter has changed the outlook of everyone who works there, she said.  Nobody was assigned to the school at the last minute against their will, as in past years.

Eren use this.jpg"Everyone from the principal to the teachers to the cafeteria to the secretary--everyone has chosen to be here.  There was not a reshuffling [as in past years]," said Eren.

Lebron, who worked as a principal in the district until he signed on to lead Olney, agreed. "We had the opportunity to site-select every single position, to say to a potential teacher: 'This is what we're about, this is what we expect. Are you willing to commit yourself to that?'"

So, two months into the school year, Olney is gaining fans. And some families have sought to enroll their children because they had heard good reports about Stetson, or Success, or the calm that now prevails most of the time at Olney. By early November, 189 students from elsewhere in the district had enrolled by choice.

Can Aspira's plan for Olney serve as a model for other troubled urban schools?

Robert Lysek, chief operations officer of Success Schools, said he thinks it can, and he also gives kudos to efforts by two other charters, Mastery Schools at Gratz and Universal Companies at Audenried.

"Where else in the country is something like this happening, where private groups with some support groups are going into low-performing, dangerous high schools, and they are transforming them into something that may look like a prep school?" asked Lysek.

"And you're not kicking anyone out, you're getting what you're getting. Everybody else is dumping the trouble - the 10 percent of kids - but we're taking them head-on. It's an interesting movement, a one-of-a-kind movement. I think it's the future, if it works."

The school-within-a-school program to remove disruptive students from general classrooms and yet offer them instruction, structure and a chance to do well is central to the state of calm that prevails now at Olney and has caught the attention of other charter schools in Philadelphia and Camden. 

Aspira had been operating two K-8 charter schools in North Philadelphia when itOlney students use this.jpg took over management of Stetson Middle School last year as part of the city district's Renaissance school turnaround plan. The restructuring at Olney reflects the programs that Aspira established at Stetson, including the Success Academy, the teacher evaluation process and an initiative to develop school pride and student leadership.

"We used the process we learned at Stetson and then we empowered the staff that we have hired," said Evelyn Nuñez, Aspira's chief academic officer. "But our approach is not cookie cutter. We have to look at the school - what are the needs? What are the problems?"

Friends Brieanna Richards and Winona Handy, both 17, both seniors, both planning to study criminology in college, find the changes reassuring.

"We actually have teachers who care about their students. And the fact that they don't have to worry about distractions in class or someone in the hallway banging on their door makes it a lot easier on them, so they are not frustrated with us," said Richards.

"It's safer," said Handy. "People feel like they don't have to worry about a confrontation as soon as they walk in the door. There's more structure, more boundaries."

"It's weird," added Richards. "Adults usually think that we would rather have the freedom but I think it's better. ... Everybody listens now, instead of just us while everybody else is goofing off. We like it."

Handy said she used to feel as if, "dang, I'm this one person who actually wants to do something with my life. Everybody else is just thinking about throwing a book."

 Now she sees classmates more involved with their studies. "I feel better that everybody else is on the same track," said Handy, "because I don't want anyone to fail."

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