Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


A Day In The Life: The Teacher II

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By Connie Langland

Hopping off her bicycle outside Mastery Charter School's Simon Gratz Campus, language-arts teacher JacQueline Palmer faced a typical day: Five classes, 110 students, one teacher meeting, lesson planning, plus after-school tutoring.

What her students faced was all too typical also: rumors, anxiety, fear -- well founded or not.

The previous afternoon, two Gratz students had been wounded in a shooting on the Broad Street subway line, but no one seemed to know much else. Ten days earlier, a classmate had been shot to death at a nearby playground. So school started with extra security outside the hulking high school on Hunting Park Avenue, and city police and Mastery personnel were out in force.

"This school has had a pretty rough week, outside the school, in terms of violence," said Palmer, 24, looking up from her laptop at her desk in her third-floor classroom. She was inputting as many homework grades as possible before heading off to a pre-bell teacher meeting. The question loomed: How would off-campus mayhem impactGratz13.jpg the day?

Palmer is now in her third year at Gratz. She started fresh out of Temple University when Gratz was still district-run, fraught with safety issues and in the dumps academically. Mastery Schools took over management last year, hiring its own teachers, including a few who, like Palmer, opted to leave the city system.  The school draws its students from the Nicetown neighborhood within boundaries established by the district.

Gratz is a so-called Renaissance School, one of about 20 public schools that have been turned over to nonprofit charter management groups over the past three years in an effort to reverse chronic poor performance. In a parallel initiative, the district has poured extra resources into another set of failing schools, calling them Promise Academies. The success of these schools is being watched closely now that the district has unveiled plans to form "Achievement Networks" -- clusters of 20 to 30 schools, some of which would be run by private entities.

Upbeat indicators are being reported at several of the schools, including Gratz as well as University City High School, a Promise Academy. Visits to both campuses in recent days had a singular goal: to gauge school climate, student engagement and teaching practices.

At 8 a.m., while many of the Gratz's 1,000 students started the day with breakfast in the auditorium, Palmer met with other 10th grade teachers to discuss students in need of extra support.  Just four weeks into the school year, the teachers knew who had been absent too often, who suffered from low self-esteem, who had been "rogue" -- not in school -- as one teacher described her, and another in need of "pumping up."  There were more problems than time. Students, all wearing black pants and gray golf shirts, were beginning to fill the hallway.

Palmer's habit is to greet students at the door and hand them a five-minute "Do Now" assignment as part of the start-of-class routine. That day, the task was to correct capitalization errors in text.  Then teacher and students went over some rules: First letter of first word of a sentence -- capitalized. Formal names, titles, brand names -- all capitalized.

For the 28 students in first period, and indeed across most of the rest of the day, the Broad Street shooting had little impact on either Palmer's delivery or student concentration. With a few exceptions, students were attentive, responsive and respectful. Beyond the classroom, the hallway was quiet, a far cry from the situation two years ago.

"We used to have lockdowns pretty often, and kids running in the halls all the time," Palmer recalled. One day she came across girls playing double-dutch jump rope outside their teacher's door.  "I never thought I would see what seemed like a scene out of Lean on Me, but there it was.... We needed outside help."

Gratz02.jpgCan a school day be remarkable for its normalcy? For how a teacher can tickle the fancy of urban youth with the yarn that Holden Caulfield spins in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951?

"I love this book," Palmer confided to one class, moments after two students read aloud a conversation between Holden and girlfriend Sally, an exchange that had the whole class laughing.

Over the course of a 52-minute class period, Palmer walks up and down the rows of desks perhaps a dozen times. She marks each student's Do Now (for having done it) and checks each student's copy of Catcher to confirm that he or she has annotated the margins of the previous evening's reading assignment. Students get credit for homework and in-class work and extra credit for seeking extra help after school. She hands out tiny stickers -- extra credit for enthusiastic participation. She issues demerits as well.

Palmer can seem smitten by her students. She says she's learned not to play "whack a ball" -- that is, to focus on instances of negative behavior. Instead she has learned to "positively narrate" -- to compliment students doing well. "Students want attention, and it doesn't matter whether it's positive or negative," she said.

She can joke, at one time advising students to "make awkward eye contact" with a partner and discuss Holden's motive. She also attempts to keep the subject matter relevant, asking students to identify the main idea and supporting facts in passages related to teenage use of marijuana, the marketing of the iPhone 5 and the negative effects of television on children.

But she keeps class on track, using Mastery protocols.

Mastery uses a traditional curriculum and trains teachers to track student participation and understanding and to "sweat the small stuff" to keep control of the room.  She posts student grades, identified by ID number and updated weekly, on the wall outside the classroom. She uses a timer when students do in-class work "to build urgency" as a Mastery task sheet suggests. She reminds students frequently to sit in what Mastery terms "academic posture" and not to call out. Her teaching is scrutinized frequently in a series of formal and informal reviews by superiors.

Mastery stresses higher education.  College banners hang in the hallways. Posters toutGratz05.jpg success. Palmer has given each of her classes a school name -- Temple, Villanova, Bucknell, St. Joseph's and Fisk. "That's great, Temple. Keep it up," she exhorted her first-period class.

But post-secondary work is a far goal. In the near term, the challenge is to keep students in school and improve their work and attitude. In its first year at Gratz, Mastery brought the school under control, improved student attendance and parent morale and began to impact student performance. The latest PSSA results show some gains, especially in moving students from "below basic" to "basic," but only 21 percent of 11th graders were proficient in math and 20 percent in reading. 

The school is noticeably calmer at the start of this school year than it was a year ago, Palmer said. A zero-tolerance policy is in place, and students who fight or repeatedly disrupt instruction are reassigned a mile away to the Wayne Academy, a highly structured disciplinary program that includes instruction. Last month, Gratz was among eight city schools to be taken off the state's "persistently dangerous" list.

Palmer's classes vary in size from 15 -- for struggling readers -- to 30, in those classes where students have stronger skills.

She tries to call about seven parents a week, mostly with good news, and will call home as needed if there's an issue. "Those are hard phone calls to make -- to be as real as possible with parents. To say, 'This is what I'm seeing, this is what happened,'" she allowed. Parents are responsive, she said, when "they see you are working together toward the same common goal" of helping the child.

Her students are her fans. "She keeps us on task, and if you need extra help, she's there for you ," said Alliyah Hartridge, 16, who enrolled at Gratz this year after being home-schooled.

"The way she teaches, she makes sure everyone knows what we're doing before she goes on to the next lesson. And, she's a nice person," said Khalil Hunter, 17.

Critics complain that Mastery teachers "teach to the test," and certainly Palmer bluntly reminded students of what they needed to know for the benchmark exam two weeks away.

"We still have kids who don't have the skills for college, for life, yes, but not for college. But we set a high bar that we think kids can reach, and then we set it higher," she said.

The day rolled along with few disruptions. A couple of paper wads got tossed behind her back in one class. A back and forth conversation among four girls took several call-outs to quell.

"Ladies, we do not talk during the Do Now," she warned the girls.

Classroom management is a matter of give and take, she acknowledged. "The decision making that I do every day -- it's ongoing. Do I fight this battle, or do I let it go?" she said.

What happened last period, however, tested her skills and her patience, as well as that of most of the 16 students in her only 12th grade class.

Palmer was at the front of the room, starting to discuss when and when not to capitalize.

Gratz04.jpgFrom the back of the room, a young man spoke up. "You know what's happening outside and you expect us to stay here?" In front of him, a young woman was in agreement.

Palmer paused, then responded: "I don't like to give demerits, but I will if I have to. Again, Fisk, let's talk about ... "

 The female student interrupted: "No, miss, it's serious...."

"Fisk, Fisk. I know there are stressful things going on outside...," Palmer started to say.

The young woman, excited, distraught, spoke up again. "We are scared, miss. Outside, they're trying to kill us."

The two students were adamant, and Palmer had no choice. She used the classroom telephone to call for a security officer, who arrived within a minute and signaled to the male student to leave the room. Palmer stepped outside as well.

After a brief conversation, she returned, the student following soon after. The incident was over within 10 minutes, and it was time for the class to pick up where they had left off the previous day, discussing the narrator's "voice" in Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy.  

"Fisk, great going," Palmer noted a few minutes later. "We've really gotten back on track."

At 3:30 the last bell rang and students filed out of class, a few staying behind for extra help.

Outside the school, the presence of police and senior staff aimed to reassure departing students.

Elsewhere in the city, the parents of a 15-year-old former Gratz student accompanied their son into a police station, where he would be charged as an adult with attempted murder in the subway shooting.

And about 10 hours after she arrived, Palmer carried her bicycle down two flights of stairs and peddled six miles home.



Photos of JacQueline Palmer and her students at Gratz by Peter Tobia


Metropolis has visited Gratz before. Read our Cover Story about the remarkable group of young men who made up Gratz' 2006 basketball team, the last public school to win the city title.

It wasn't the final buzzer in the 2006 Philadelphia Public League championship that signaled the game was over. It was over moments after the first tip-off.

The Simon Gratz Bulldogs came out of the gate firing, going up 14-4 over the 

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Communications Technology High School. By halftime, Gratz was ahead by nine points. It began the second half scoring 12 unanswered points. The final score was Gratz 62, CT High 36.

In that championship game, Gratz set three records, which stand today: biggest point differential (26 points); lowest amount of points allowed (36), and best field goal percentage; the Gratz team missed only eight shots all game.

Winning the city championship was the culmination of an already successful season, during which Gratz went 24-5, with no league losses and no losses at home. It was a remarkable season.

This year, I went looking for the members of the Gratz team to see what had become of them. Frankly, I went looking for failure.


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