This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
According to mythology, the phoenix was a sacred bird reborn from its ashes. It’s fitting, then, that the phoenix is the mascot for Fairhill Community High School, a school in Kensington that gives another chance to former dropouts such as 17-year-old Samuel Estevez.
"I was way off track at Kensington High," Estevez acknowledged as he polished a persuasive essay in computer lab. But after leaving Kensington, he stayed home for just a month before realizing that he "wasn’t going to make it anywhere in life" without a diploma.
He heard about Fairhill from his girlfriend, a recent graduate, and he found it a far more congenial place. "Here I attend school every day," he said. "The teachers don’t play. They’re really about teaching. At Kensington, you could walk out of class … and no one would say anything."
Founded in 2004, Fairhill is one of six "accelerated schools" designed to reclaim over-age students with few high school credits and put them on a path to a diploma. It is bringing new hope to roughly 225 students and has a waiting list of 300.
The nonprofit that runs Fairhill, IECI/One Bright Ray, Inc., has an agreement to open a "North Philadelphia Community High School" nearby this spring for 100 students, some of them coming out of the juvenile justice system. Because of the high demand, the District is planning to open yet another accelerated school this summer.
An evaluation of the accelerated schools is underway, but there is not yet any hard data on how effective these small, privately managed schools are in shepherding students to graduation and further education or jobs. Principal Marcus Delgado said that in less than four years Fairhill has awarded diplomas to 87 students.
It is clear that at Fairhill many students benefit. Estevez is on track to graduate in September with plans to enroll in barber school and open his own shop. Sasha Bernard, 17, found Fairhill on the recommendation of a math teacher at Edison who saw that she was floundering.
"Here the teachers … make sure you get your work done,” she said as she compiled a “Hamlet Dictionary” using PowerPoint. “At Edison, they didn’t care what you did, as long as you didn’t make trouble.” She is on track to graduate in March 2009 and wants to enter the medical field.
Photo: Harvey Finkle
Sasha Bernard who struggled at Edison, is on track to graduate from Fairhill in March 2009.
Delgado said that students are admitted four times a year after undergoing an intensive interview process in which he determines whether they are serious about returning to school. He estimates that he admits 90 percent of the students he interviews.
Some, he said, come to Fairhill with zero credits; some have been out of school for four or five years. Some read on lower than a sixth-grade level. To help them succeed, Fairhill offers a range of support services, including a social worker and therapist and one support service class during the last hour of every day. There, students get instruction with a ten-to-one student-teacher ratio. In addition, tutoring services are available after school every day until 4 p.m.
Of critical importance to students like 18-year-old Ashley Howell is Fairhill’s on-site daycare facility, where her 18-month-old daughter is enrolled. After dropping out of Edison, Howell stayed home for four months, but decided to get her diploma in large part to better provide for her daughter. “I was no longer just living for myself. I was being selfish if I didn’t go back to better her future,” she said.
With perfect attendance, she aspires to study nursing after graduating next January. Like other students, she credits the school’s supportive atmosphere for her turnaround. “Everybody knows you here,” she explains. “You feel wanted.”
Classrooms combine structured learning and individual projects as part of eight-week- long “modules,” or learning sessions. In addition to core subjects, all students engage in a half-hour of school-wide reading per day. Each class reads the same book, with the goal of reading four books per year. Titles range from classics such as Hamlet to Steve Lopez’s Third and Indiana.
“But before we teach them skills, we teach them how to respect themselves,” Delgado said, starting with a strict dress code. As they calmly file into school shortly before 8 a.m., one sees no sloppy shirttails, sneakers, or droopy pants. Instead, girls wear a neat, green Fairhill shirt, black skirt, black knee-highs, and oxfords. Boys similarly wear a green shirt, black slacks, and oxfords.
Busy summer days
School is year-round, except for a break in late August. The summer session is a service learning project done by groups of 50 students. In the past, students created documentary DVDs and books of their writing. This summer they will develop a community garden as well as a flyer instructing residents on how to obtain needed city services.
To earn a diploma students must not only earn 23.5 credits, but complete a senior seminar, pass basic competency tests in Math and English, and make a PowerPoint presentation on a subject relevant to their future or personal interest.
They also complete a one-month, school-arranged internship during the second summer they attend Fairhill, and students have completed internships at the neighborhood Coca-Cola bottling company and other area businesses. Two modules before graduation, each student meets with the school social worker to plan what he or she will do after graduation. After earning their diplomas, Delgado estimates that about 30 percent of Fairhill students continue their educations while the rest go to work.
A key component of Fairhill’s educational philosophy seems to be peer pressure, of a positive variety, which is evident in history teacher Brandon Grodnitzky’s class. On a recent morning students worked in small groups creating posters showing the five key characteristics of civilization as they relate to ancient Sumeria. Crystal Rosario stopped to explain knowledgeably how Sumerians used a cylinder seal to record business transactions, an example of one characteristic, record-keeping. “The rest of the class will rally around anyone who is struggling,” Grodnitzky said.
All this is not to say that Fairhill is without serious challenges. Some students don’t make it, inhibited mostly by personal and family issues, according to Delgado. There are pink slips, but most of those are not for disruption, but for unwillingness to do work – a no-no that will get a student removed from class.
“Our rules don’t bend,” Delgado said. “They know that if they don’t want to do the work, there are students who will be happy to take their place.”