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‘Focus 46’ schools work on safety strategies

The Blue Ribbon Commission is targeting schools with the worst violence and truancy.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The District’s latest school safety campaign has set an ambitious goal of reducing the number of persistently dangerous schools (PDS) to zero in two years.

In November, the District convened for the first time a Blue Ribbon Commission led by Mayor Michael Nutter and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to discuss its plans for tackling violence in and outside of Philadelphia’s schools. The panel includes members of District staff, union leaders, government and law enforcement officials, clergy, parents, youth organizers, and community activists.

The commission gathering coincided with the convening of a youth-led, citywide summit on issues of violence by the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools.

While the commission will seek solutions for combating the violence that continues to plague the city, it will first focus on the District’s Focus 46 schools – a list that includes 20 schools on the state’s PDS list and another 26 that were once on the list or trending that way.

It’s at these schools where the District needs to focus "heat and light," said Tomás Hanna, associate superintendent of academic support. The Focus 46 group has less than 90 percent average daily attendance, more than 40 percent of students who are chronically truant, and more than five violent incidents per 100 students.

Sheila Simmons, education director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, is optimistic about the campaign, but worries that it mostly duplicates violence prevention approaches the District has tried in the past.

"I was a little disappointed that it didn’t at least examine anti-violence and prevention strategies … such as effective positive behavior supports," said Simmons, also a member of the commission.

"We have taken steps to implement various programs, but where we have always failed is at taking the prevention initiatives seriously and implementing them with fidelity," she said.

On Nov. 1, each of the schools was required to submit a school plan detailing strategies to prevent violence, truancy, and bullying.

The District promised frequent updates on progress at the 46 schools. the Notebook made repeated requests for new information, but had not received any data in time for publication.

Data from prior years clearly support the need for dramatic improvements at these schools. The Focus 46 make up 17 percent of all District schools, but 50 percent of the District’s out-of-school suspensions are in these schools, Hanna said. Forty-eight percent of violent incidents, 63 percent of students who are chronically truant, and 73 percent of the expulsions approved a year ago by the SRC also come from this group.

On the heels of a September SRC vote for a tougher anti-bullying policy, schools districtwide also began implementing the anti-bullying curriculum materials Second Step (in grades K-8) and School Connect (9-12).

The campaign aims to improve school climate through improved attendance-taking, ongoing professional development for principals and other staff, improved leadership and instruction, surveillance cameras, and the use of CompStat, a system used by Philadelphia police to map crime and identify problem areas.

The District is also using school climate scorecards to document actual percentages and targets for student average daily attendance, chronic truancy, monthly violent incidents, and monthly out-of-school suspensions.

"We’re tracking every one of those 46 schools with statistics … to get everything all on one page to examine," said Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery.

To get a more comprehensive look at the schools, top District officials are also making site visits to see what is happening on the ground and to help support efforts to craft a strategy for dealing with the violence.

"We’re out there more than we ever have been before," Hanna said.

Hanna said the District is looking at such things as how kids come into the building, which substitutes are in place, and how students travel to and from schools because "those are root causes of where problems occur."

The Blue Ribbon Commission will monitor the District’s progress on meeting its goals, convene quarterly to review and provide recommendations for action, and issue an annual report to Ackerman and the mayor. The next meeting will be February 8.

Four subcommittees called Safe Schools Audit, School Visit, Policy Work Group, and Attendance and Truancy/Bullying Prevention will also meet.

Emilio Garcia, a senior at Saul High School, is one of seven youth leaders on the commission. He is also a member of the Safe Schools Audit subcommittee and president of Citywide Student Government. Though he doesn’t attend one of the 46 schools, he recognizes the need for the campaign against violence and applauded the city and District effort.

"It’s definitely something that is a concern for a lot of students because students fear what’s going to happen when they get outside their home, when they’re in school, and coming home … and the weapons that students bring into the schools are outrageous," Garcia said.

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