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Making Public Schools Work

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­­By Connie Langland

In late January, a busload of teachers and school leaders traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to tour Stetson Middle School, where good things are happening, things almost too good to be true.

Urban educators are desperate, and they'll travel just about any distance in search of that most rare of entities--an inner-city school that works for its students, for its staff and for the community that it anchors.

Which brings me to the point of this essay --and another tomorrow. For more than a decade, first at The Philadelphia Inquirer and later as a free-lance journalist, I have reported on emerging trends in education with a focus on programs that show the potential to work in just about any school, urban or suburban, short-funded or with bucks to spare. My beat was education in the suburbs, including such urban pockets as Chester, Upper Darby and Pottstown.

Across the region, I found many, many educators grappling with the same tough-nut problems that city school leaders face. Violence. Stressed-out students and staff. Children who can't read. Mediocre or miserable PSSA results. Disengaged parents. Bored, angry high schoolers.

The obstacles can be daunting, as they were at Stetson.  Located in the heart of Stetson19.jpgPhiladelphia's Latino community, Stetson was a failed public school. It also was a school out of control.  The school district, desperate for a solution, turned operation of the school over to Aspira, a Latino education advocacy group. In turn, Aspira turned Stetson into a charter school in the fall of 2010.  Order was quickly established, test scores rose, the school has become an urban education success story.

But, it is not the only one.  I have seen other success stories during my years of reporting and each carries a lesson. These collected success stories tell us that all is not hopeless. That public schools can be salvaged. That is does not require mystical or esoteric methods.  The solution lies in a combination of bright ideas, perseverance, compromise and a bedrock belief that every child, no matter that child's circumstances, can learn and deserves a good education.

The process begins with adults asserting control.

Who's in charge?

Way back in 1994, the topic of violence in schools drew dozens of students from around the region to a forum. A girl from Chester High School stood up to describe how other teens acting out got in the way of her education. One student after the other offered ideas on how to intervene. But then an adult in the audience, Robert DiNicola, stopped them short. No, he said, "It's my job. I'm the principal. I need to deal with it."

That's exactly what DiNicola had done in September 1992 as new principal of Chichester High School, where mayhem--fights, weapons being confiscated, a fire in the library, a trash can blown to bits--had ruled the previous spring.

 DiNicola imposed lots of rules and forbade students from congregating at certain trouble spots. Caps, bare midriffs, low-hanging jeans--all were banned. And he and his senior staff became very, very visible.

Despite debilitating hip pain, DiNicola hit the hallways before and after school and at every bell, as did his senior staff. They learned every student's name, gained trust, and demanded good behavior. Their efforts turned around the culture in a matter of days. 

DiNicola came to mind last spring when I visited Stetson Middle School in the Fairhill section. That school had been failing badly two years ago and was turned Stetson05.jpgover to Aspira, a Latino youth advocacy group already operating two elementary charter schools, as part of the district's Renaissance program. Stetson had an overwhelming problem: out-of-control students who disrupted classes and intimidated teachers and students alike. With just over 600 students, the school had recorded more than 500 suspensions in 2009-10.

That number shrunk to less than 10 last year with a combination of tactics, including creation of a separate academy on the school's fourth floor to educate disruptive students in a highly structured setting. That program is run by Success Schools, whose key staff has long experience running disciplinary schools. At the outset, Success' chief operating officer Robert Lysek had pointed advice for the Stetson staff. Who runs your school, he asked, the grownups or the kids? Echoes of Bobby DiNicola, I say.

And to be clear, while Stetson as a charter has been freed of some rules governing the city's public schools, it serves the same children as it did as a failing district-run school. On the topic of school safety anyway, the comparison is apples to apples.

Under Aspira, principal Renata Lajara and Stetson teachers run the school in a very visible way. The teachers mill about on the school's sidewalks morning and afternoon, welcoming students, bantering with students, calling out a girl who litters or the youngster who pulls out his shirttail while still on school property. Teachers walk their students to the next class. They stop any misbehavior in mid-act--and long before minor turns major.

Teachers were at first dumbstruck, then energized, and students have embraced the new culture, taking pride in achievement, applying to special-admission high schools in impressive numbers and articulating lofty (and now realistic) ambitions.

That's what can happen when school leadership asserts itself. As DiNicola told me, "Everything in the web belongs to the spider."

Don't just sit there

How do you make school work for the many young people who seem not to be natural born scholars, or those who do well enough but appear to be drifting through school, bored and disengaged? And is it possible, at the same time, to begin to answer the question of the decade: How do we prepare young people today to enter the workforce tomorrow?

It can be done -- if you are willing to rethink the traditional classroom. Only about one in four students learns best in that format. The challenge is to offer these young people hands-on experiences, training of one kind or another, or projects that capture their imagination.

In the realm of science, elementary programs already are pretty good at hands-on learning, and it's a treat to see second graders wearing oversized goggles examining what's growing in a petri dish or signing up for robotics competition.

And it's amazing what a third-grade class can accomplish. At McCall Elementary School in Center City, teacher Lisa Hantman has embraced the concept of service learning focusing on one grand project each year. This year's class is studying nutrition and hunger in the city. Three years ago, students explored the hazards of smoking and created the "Smoke-Free Forever Museum" that spilled out of the classroom into the hallway and drew 1,000 visitors.

Said Hantman: "We really become experts on things. The kids eat that kind of stuff up. They want to be smart, they want to tell the world what they know."

Junior ROTC programs have caught on in the suburbs and the city. So have creativeStetson17.jpg and performing arts magnet schools, even at the middle-school level. And the technical schools in the city and the suburbs experienced a renaissance in the 1990s, shedding the old trade school image, and drawing students to high-tech programs that give them a head start on post-high school training.

And despite parent resistance, numerous high schools have instituted block scheduling, expanding the class length to give students time to work on projects, even to leave the building to visit a soup kitchen or help clean up a waterway.

This year, public school teachers Simon Hauger and Michael Clapper are lightly supervising 27 seniors in a project-based initiative at the Navy Yard (endorsed by the district). The students have learned to collaborate, do math, marshal arguments and write business plans--all in the course of such endeavors as starting up a lightbulb replacement service for homeowners, building an ultralight electric car and promoting Dream Act legislation.

"We envision school as these boxes of knowledge in 45, 55-minute increments. That's wonderful for some kids. For the rest, it doesn't work, having to fit into that mold," said Hauger, who gained fame locally as founder of the Hybrid-X Team, an after-school program building hybrid electric cars. His teams entered international competitions and beat MIT heavyweights.

 "Philadelphia is hungry for other approaches," said Hauger. "To really engage students, they need a hands-on approach where they are at the center of the process and they make decisions about what and how they learn."

 This may seem to be a jumble of notions thrown into one pot, but the key point is this: School can be so much more than seat time, waiting for real life to start. School can be a place where students start to build their futures through memorable learning experiences.

Tomorrow: Five more proven ways to help schools improve.

 

Photos of Stetson Middle School by Peter Tobia

 

 

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