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Takeover at Olney High

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By Connie Langland
Alfredo Calderon has sky-high hopes for Olney Charter High School, the behemoth institution that looms over its neighborhood of two-story rowhouses off the Roosevelt Boulevard in North Philadelphia.
"Students will want to come here because they're learning, they're participating. ... They'll say, 'I want to be part of that because they've got things I like. I want to go to Olney,'" said Calderon, executive director of Aspira Inc. of
Pennsylvania
, the Latino youth advocacy group named this year to the failing public high school as a charter school. 
That goal is some months in the offing, at the least.
But what Aspira has accomplished since the start of school on Sept. 6 is worth a close look. Impressions count, and teachers and students describe a school that is far different - safer, less chaotic, more focused on teaching and learning - than when Olney's doors closed last June.
"Last year it was a lot of doing what you wanted to do. If you chose not to go to class and learn, you could go to the cafeteria and play spades, or go to the gym and play handball," recalled Qaasim Bowman, 15, a 10th grader. "I'm not saying the staff would allow it but the kids would do it. We didn't have any structure. It was very wild."
It was this reputation as a school out of control, and its persistent poor academic performance, that led the school district to designate Olney for a takeover. It turned to Aspira because the group already experience running its own charters and had been successful at taking over another troubled district school,
Stetson Middle School
, in 2010.
But, it would be a real challenge. Olney was three times bigger that Stetson. It had older, more independent students and, if anything, was more troubled than the middle school. Aspira, though, was determined to succeed, employing many of the same techniques it used at Stetson.
Bowman noticed things had changed on the first day of school when nearly all students showed up wearing the new school uniform, including a tie. "I love this tie," said Bowman, grasping it and grinning. Last year, there were stairwells he had to avoid, for fear of getting mugged. Not so this year. "When you enter the doors of Olney, you'll see it's a learning environment," he added. Qaasim Bowman use This.jpg
"In my room, we were OK," said Edward Pollard, a life-skills teacher who taught at Olney before the takeover. But beyond the classroom, mayhem ruled. "School was total chaos on a regular basis. Kids pretty much roamed the halls all day, I guess maybe because of the lack of security personnel." His students, all with special needs, would get bumped in the hallway or get food snatched off their trays in the lunchroom, scaring them.
This year, Pollard said, "the chaos is not there. It's just so orderly and just so pleasant."
Olney was, for many years, a single high school.  But district officials, believing a smaller school would be more manageable, kept the students in the same building, but in different wings, creating an Olney East and Olney West. It did not improve matters.
In both schools, attendance was poor, and got worse over the course of the day. Students milled in hallways - even within sight of the principal's office. Scores of students were truant, defiant, argumentative and sometimes violent.  The two schools ranked among the most violent in the city. 
To make matters worse, students felt teachers - not all, but too many - didn't care whether they passed or failed.  They weren't necessarily wrong. Reading and math scores in both schools were shockingly low (19% proficient in reading,  15% proficient in math on  11th grade 2011 PSSA tests in Olney East; 15% proficient in reading; 18% proficient in math in Olney West, with declines in reading in both schools from the 2010 tests). Fewer that about 6 in 10 students graduated on time and even students wondered whether an Olney diploma held any value.
Edward pollard use This.jpgAspira acquired Olney East and West as part of the
School District of Philadelphia's Renaissance school turnaround program. In the past two years, the district has transferred control of a dozen schools to charter groups. Aspira acquired Stetson Middle School
in August 2010, and many of the safety, instructional and organization changes at Olney mirror changes at Stetson, where suspensions declined, school climate improved and PSSA scores rose 8 points in reading and jumped 22 points in math from 2010 to 2011.
At Olney, Aspira has changed just about everything  - replacing senior staff and all but a handful of the teachers; opening the double doors on all floors that divided the building into two schools; upgrading the food service; installing over 350 cameras in classrooms, hallways and outside the building; and hiring 29 safety officers.
 "We literally had two months to create a school from scratch," said Principal Jose Lebron. "My concern was, let's get the basics."
The school has nearly 1,700 students, most of them Latino or black, and the vast majority of them poor.   
As it merged East and West, Aspire also reorganized the school into grade-level "houses" - 9th graders on the fourth floor, 10th graders on the third floor, 11th and 12th graders attending classes on the 5th, 2nd and ground floors. Special-needs classes have been grouped on the 1st floor, and an off-campus program called the
Excel Academy
serves about 100 over-age students (18-, 19- and 20-years old). 
Safety officers supervise the hallways and stairwells on all floors as well as the entrances - and have intervened to stop several fights, according to Lebron.
But the game changer at Olney, in terms of dealing with defiant, recalcitrant and unmotivated students, may be the school-within-a-school disciplinary/academic program called the
Success Academy
. The program garnered praise in its first year at Stetson -- not only for its impact on safety and climate schoolwide but also for the turnaround in attitude and behavior among the students assigned to the program.
At Stetson, suspensions plunged - from about 500 in 2009-10 to less than 10 last year. At Olney, there had been 12 suspensions and no expulsions as of Nov. 4, according to Lebron.  Attendance has improved, to an average 85 percent in October, he said.
School climate improves "when you are able to siphon off students who have a history of discipline, vandalism, aggressiveness - all the negative things--and service them appropriately," said Lebron.  "Believe it or not, some of those students, and their parents, have said, 'That's where I want to be ... because the traditional class setup hasn't worked for me for the last five, six, seven years.'"
At the same time, he said, removing those students from the general population benefits "our kids who want to learn and not be interfered with." Esposito use This.jpg
Last year, Quadir Schley, 16, was absent a lot and had behavior issues. He now is in 11th grade at Success. "Students down here can't do nothing without being redirected. If they do something bad, they know the outcome--someone will say something to them. I think [the staff] want you to succeed. When they redirect, obviously I did something wrong. My behavior did change down here. Already. I'm not arguing. I'm setting an example in class," said Schley, who has Pledge status and aspires to become a Trojan. As at Stetson, students who show respect, leadership and a serious demeanor can gain privileges and status in a program with three levels--Pledge, Trojan and Executive.
Schley said he tells friends "it's actually fun down here, once you get the hang of it. Just do what you got to do." He's now thinking about college or advanced training to become an electrician.
Another student, Justin Powell, 17, now in 12th grade, said that last year it was easier to just go with the flow than go to class. "There wasn't really no structure. Seeing the environment, you just start adapting to it," he recalled.
Powell is thriving in the Success program--he was named Success' first student of the month--and plans to get post-graduate training in maintenance and landscaping.  "The first day, everybody knew my name. Wow! Mr. Esposito pulled me to the side, and he said to me, 'Mr. Powell, you think you can follow the rules?' And I'm thinking, who's this guy who knows my name?" Powell recalled.
By early November, 125 students had been assigned to
Success Academy
, according to its director, Michael Esposito, who reported no major incidents. Esposito counsels both students and their parents about the strict rules and the parameters of Success. Students can return to general classes if they convince the Success staff over time that they have reformed their ways.
Powell clearly has bought into the ethos of Success, saying, "I think the whole school should be like this. It was time for a change. [Otherwise], Olney was going to stay Olney forever, the negative stereotyping, the bad behavior. Something had to give."

 

Can Olney High be a model for school turnarounds? Read Part Two.

 

Photos by Peter Tobia

 

 

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