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At a struggling middle school, ‘change is difficult’

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

Philadelphia’s six new Renaissance Promise Academies were meant to bring dramatic changes to some of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

But some of the changes that have taken place since the start of the school year at the Promise Academy at Roberto Clemente Middle School – including replacement of the principal, at least five teacher resignations, and two major schoolwide roster changes– are not exactly what anyone had in mind.

“It’s been a struggle,” acknowledged Francisco Duran, the District’s assistant superintendent in charge of the Promise Academies.

Complicating matters, the staff is overwhelmingly new to the school, and many are inexperienced. This fall, 88 percent of the teachers were new to Clemente, and 48 percent are in their first year teaching in the District.

The result, say five teachers who spoke with the Notebook, has been “a mess.”

“It’s just so much change, and a lot of those changes are flying by the seat of our pants," said Katharine Harvey, an 8th grade math teacher in her fourth year at Clemente. "We don’t know quite what to expect each day."

Promise Academies are supposed to feature an extended school day and year, heavy doses of the highly scripted, remedial Corrective Reading and Corrective Math curricula, and extensive enrichment opportunities for students.

The Promise Academy design requires a dramatic overhaul of the instructional staffs. Last spring, the schools had to "force transfer" all teachers and were prohibited from rehiring more than 50 percent.

Although Duran spoke candidly about the challenges at Clemente this year, he emphasized that there are significant signs of improvement at the school.

Attendance is up about 3 percent while suspensions are down 22 percent. Early predictive tests point towards potential double-digit gains on the state PSSA exam in both reading and math.

"The data speaks for itself, [and] I can speak with every ounce of me that this is a different school," said Duran, who oversaw Clemente in his previous capacity as a regional superintendent.

"Is there much more that can be done? Absolutely. Is it where we want it to be? Absolutely not. But is it a mess? No," he said.

From the beginning, though, Clemente – located on Erie Avenue near Front Street – has been behind.

The school was the last Promise Academy to fill all of its teacher vacancies prior to the start of the school year. That delay had a ripple effect in efforts to train staff and implement the model during the first weeks of school.

Then, just five weeks into the school year, the District decided to replace principal Milagros DeJesus with Ed Penn, the former principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary, who had been working in the Promise Academy office as a "turnaround principal specialist."

"We wanted to support the new teachers here and bring in someone with a middle school background," explained Duran.

Earlier this month, the school was thrown into turmoil again. In response to a districtwide mandate for all Empowerment Schools, Clemente was required to extend the time it devotes to literacy and math classes.

In the 5th and 6th grades, literacy classes went from 45 to 120 minutes, and math classes went from 45 to 90 minutes.

In the 7th and 8th grades, literacy and math classes both went from 45 to 90 minutes.

Several teachers said that efforts to reconfigure the school’s roster puzzle have been chaotic – especially while trying to account for multiple teacher vacancies.

First-year teacher Cameron Clark, a Teach for America corps member hired as a science teacher, said his roster has changed numerous times – more than five times in the last three weeks alone.

"Most of the time, it’s getting totally new classes or new grades of classes," said Clark. "I [also] teach a lot more Corrective Reading and Corrective Math than I do science. For the most part, [science teachers] are in charge of doing coverages for vacancies and teachers who are out sick."

"It’s tough to teach in an environment where nothing is constant," concluded Clark, clearly dismayed.

Like Duran, Principal Penn acknowledged that some of the changes at Clemente have been difficult. But the school has made great strides, he said.

"If you evaluate where we were in September to where we are in December, there has been tremendous growth in standardizing classrooms and standardizing instruction," he said.

During a recent math lesson in Harvey’s classroom, the fruits of those efforts, as well as many features of the Promise Academy model, were on display.

The walls of Harvey’s classroom were covered with signs reminding students about math concepts like how to add two negative numbers, as well as signage and materials that are used in all six Promise Academies.

Such materials are now present in all Clemente classrooms.

Both Harvey and her students wore the Promise Academy uniform – white shirt, blue sweater or blazer, khaki pants, and black or brown shoes.

And Harvey helped her 29 students review for an upcoming benchmark exam with the help of a high-tech "smart board" – one of six such boards that the school added with the extra resources it receives as a Promise Academy.

But after the class, Harvey expressed her frustration.

"I had four kids today I’ve never seen before," she said. "I still don’t know what the situation is. I wish I would be informed before they just show up at my door."

A group of students who spoke with the Notebook agreed that the rostering issues at Clemente have been “confusing” and “complicated.”

“I still don’t know which classes I’m supposed to go to,” said 7th grader Kayla Staton. “All I know is at 11, I go to lunch.”

While the students praised the new enrichment opportunities they have as the result of Clemente becoming a Promise Academy, they described confusion with those efforts as well.

“I thought the extra hour was going to be fun,” said Staton. “But then they cut enrichments down. Now they have them again, and I have photography. I like it a little bit, but my teacher seems like he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

Teachers who spoke with the Notebook said they were being asked to teach enrichment activities in areas where they have no formal experience and where they have been provided no curriculum.

Getting the Promise Academy model right at Clemente is a “work in progress,” said Duran.

The District will continue to keep a watchful eye on the school and step in where needed, he added.

“We’re making changes more frequently than you would see perhaps in other schools because we want to make sure that our students and staff are successful,” said Duran.

“Sometimes in the District, we see the need to change, but we don’t,” he added. “We’re not going to do that here."

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