This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Wilfredo Cruz is seated in the back of his 8th grade English class, scanning the room.
When he spots another student with his head down, Wilfredo whispers the boy’s name, trying to get his attention.
Last year, this would have been the start of trouble. As a 7th grader at John B. Stetson Middle School, Wilfredo would often simply walk out of class to wander the halls. He was suspended multiple times and given detention countless others, for offenses ranging from writing graffiti on school property to fighting to bringing a BB gun to school.
He was not alone – there were 54 “serious incidents” reported at Stetson last year, including 21 assaults on staff and 20 assaults on students.
This year, however, things are different – for Wilfredo and for Stetson.
“I couldn’t get [Wilfredo] to stay in his class last year,” marvels Principal Renato Lajara. “But now he’s a leader up there; he runs that whole floor.”
When Wilfredo gains the attention of the sleepy student in his English class, he tersely tells the boy to sit up straight. Wordlessly, the student complies. The teacher continues her lesson without interruption.
Serving the same students
“That whole floor” is Stetson’s new “Success Academy,” a school-within-a-school disciplinary academy operated by a for-profit company, Success Schools, on the previously unused fourth floor of the ancient building at B & Allegheny Streets in Kensington.
Wilfredo is one of 66 students with a history of violent or persistently disruptive behavior who have been assigned to the new program so far this year. Forty-eight of the 66 students are boys.
Although some advocates have expressed concern over aspects of the Success Academy approach – including the use of “physical holds” on some children– the model has gotten positive early reviews from many parents and school staff.
“I love every minute of it,” says Wilfredo’s mother, Kissy Soto, 31.
The academy was planned last summer, after Stetson was awarded to ASPIRA of PA as part of the School District’s Renaissance Schools initiative. As one of seven low-performing neighborhood schools that became Renaissance charter schools this fall, ASPIRA Stetson is largely free from District mandates – with the notable exception that it must continue to serve the same children from the surrounding community, including those with a history of profound behavioral problems.
“Some of the kids have issues with violence,” says ASPIRA CEO Alfredo Calderon. “There’s one student who assaulted a staff member here last year, was sent to [an alternative disciplinary school], and is now back. If a kid is willing to assault a staff member, how do you deal with that?”
As part of its efforts to serve all these students, ASPIRA contracted with the newly formed Success Schools for an amount “under $500,000,” says Calderon.
Success Schools was founded last April by former executives from Camelot Schools, which runs seven disciplinary and alternative schools for the School District. The new company has already had discussions about its disciplinary program with other Renaissance charter operators.
The children in the Success Academy are still ASPIRA Stetson students. They have certified teachers who are ASPIRA employees, who follow the same curriculum and pacing schedule being used in the rest of the school, and who share common planning time with the other teachers.
Additional supports include class sizes of 12-15 students and a dedicated special education teacher for the floor. Students eat lunch in the main cafeteria and are eligible to participate on athletic teams. They may be “restored” to regular classrooms if they regularly attend school, get good grades, and exhibit good behavior for an extended period.
“We’re not warehousing kids up there,” stresses Calderon. “We’re educating them.”
Success Schools directly manages the day-to-day climate issues on the fourth floor and also works on the culture in the building overall. Students on the fourth floor are in an intensely structured, disciplined environment closely modeled on those found at disciplinary schools.
Until they earn staff members’ trust, students may not wear jewelry and must walk “in protocol” – silent, with their hands clasped behind their backs. And staff on occasion may put students in “physical holds” – upright against a wall, with their arms held behind their backs. That has happened 15-20 times so far this fall, according to Robert Lysek, the chief operations officer at Success Schools.
“Our model is very systematic,” says Lysek, previously the vice president for operations at Camelot and, before that, a police officer in the gang suppression unit in Tampa, Florida.
“Our belief is that without discipline and structure, you cannot educate, period,” he adds.
‘You are here because I love you’
Principal Lajara recognizes that some might see the Success Academy as too strict. But those people aren’t familiar with Stetson’s history and the larger benefits offered by the new academy, he says.
“I know that it is unsettling for people to see when they come in from the outside,” says Lajara, who was kept on by ASPIRA and is now in his third year at the school. “But people need to understand the reality. [Last year], it was just putting out fires all the time. Our teachers were exhausted. … You lose focus on those kids who really want education.”
ASPIRA Stetson teachers from regular classrooms who spoke with the Notebook reported major improvements in their classroom environment this year.
“I’m not dealing with students trying to fight each other, so I can encourage kids to do their homework,” says third-year teacher Alexandra McCoy. “I’m fighting battles that are more important.”
Lajara hopes the Success Academy will eliminate the high number of Stetson students who have historically been transferred out to disciplinary schools–students who he says often end up dropping out because of the long commute and fears for their safety.
“This way, we can watch them ourselves,” says Lajara. “They know they are not being shunned. I give them the same message all the time: ‘You are here because I love you.’”
Students are referred to the fourth floor as the result of either “non-negotiable” offenses such as fighting or as the result of “serious and persistent problems.”
But prior to the beginning of the school year, ASPIRA Stetson administrators used past student disciplinary records and other data to preemptively assign to the Success Academy 55 students with “a history of making it difficult for themselves and other students to learn,” Lajara says.
David Lapp of the Education Law Center said that it is open to question whether a student can be punished for behavior at a different school – and whether placement in the Success Academy should be considered a punishment.
“If these students were leaving the School District of Philadelphia for another charter school, the law seems clear that they could not be punished for conduct that occurred last year, when they were students in the District,” says Lapp.
A ‘blurry line’
Some of the Success Academy’s initial 55 students did not attend Stetson last year. But most, including 7th graders Precious Paulin and Joshua Gill, had significant behavioral problems there in the past.
Precious, 12, says she was suspended “a lot” for cursing and hitting other students. Joshua, also 12, says he got in trouble when he stabbed another student in the hand with a pencil after being teased.
“Last year, I really just did not care,” says Precious.
But three months into the school year, both she and Joshua say they have been “turned around.”
During a recent English class, both students sit with their hands folded on their desks, following the lesson of teacher Beth Cole, who is certified in English and communications and worked at the Camelot-run Shallcross disciplinary school last year.
At the start of class, Precious and Joshua both respond to Cole’s instruction to write a short paragraph making a prediction about how their class will go. They raise their hands to explain what “prediction” means and listen as Cole connects the assignment to questions they are likely to see on standardized tests.
Precious has gained back “privileges,” such as wearing jewelry and walking “out of protocol,” because she is the school’s first female “stallion” – a leadership position earned through good behavior and completion of a detailed pledge log. Wilfredo Cruz was the school’s first “stallion” – named for the school mascot.
Joshua makes a point of meeting any new adults on the fourth floor, looking them in the eye and shaking their hands firmly as he introduces himself as a member of the Success Academy.
“Now, I’m a real gentleman,” he says proudly.
Precious’s mother says that she was initially upset when she learned of her daughter’s assignment on the fourth floor.
“I didn’t want her to get lost up there,” says Donna Barksdale, 43.
But after school officials took her to see the academy – and after she witnessed the transformation in her daughter – Barksdale’s opinion changed.
“The classrooms looked the same, and the kids were under control,” she says. “And I see the difference in Precious this year. Her attitude is not like it was last year.”
But both Precious and Joshua say that they acted out early on, and that their early misbehavior led to staff putting them in “physical holds.”
“The first couple of times, it makes you mad,” explains Joshua. “But being in a [hold] made me think. Now, when someone bothers me, I take a timeout, do my work in a corner. It feels better being this way.”
Lysek stresses that the holds are only used if students pose an immediate threat to themselves or to others and that all of the holds are “standing techniques.”
This is significant because in the last decade, “prone restraints” came under intense scrutiny when five students at residential centers run by a now-defunct company called Brown Schools – where several current or former Camelot executives, including Lysek, once worked – died after being restrained while on the ground.
“It’s apples and oranges,” says Lysek. “We forbid our staff from taking students to the ground.”
ELC’s Lapp points out that while corporal punishment is against Pennsylvania law, it is permissible for teachers to use “reasonable force” in self-defense or to defend others. He cautions, “There is always a blurry line when reasonable force crosses over into physical punishment. Schools need to be careful about that line.”
Calderon says that ASPIRA is very mindful of the distinction.
“Discipline is one thing, abuse is another,” he says. “The safety of our students is always a concern of ASPIRA.”
As a parent, Donna Barksdale was unhappy when she found out that her daughter had been put in a physical hold. But clear communication with the school seems to have eased her concern.
“I was upset when I heard about it,” says Barksdale, 43. “I asked Precious about it, and she said it was nothing, that he didn’t hurt her. [Success Academy staff] explained to me on the phone what it was, and I felt better about it.”
Part of Barksdale’s acceptance comes from her history with Stetson.
“I was mad, but I didn’t get really upset because it was the beginning of the school year,” says Barksdale. “Students from Stetson last year were really wild. They’re just showing them what they do to get them under control.”