This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Every morning students stream out of buses that pull up at Thomas P. Shallcross Academy and quickly form neat lines. They carry no bookbags; these are banned. Still, they are scanned first by a hand-held and then by a walk-through metal detector before filing through a line of teachers to class.
Shallcross, located on a sprawling campus on Woodhaven Road in the Northeast, is a disciplinary school, made up of students assigned there for “level 2” infractions of the District’s code of conduct, usually involving fighting. Run by a company called Camelot, it is one of more than 20 disciplinary schools and programs in Philadelphia, all operated by outside providers, with more than 1,650 students from 3rd through 12th grade.
Despite – or, perhaps, because of – the no-nonsense regimentation, students seem to like Shallcross, which can accommodate up to 440 5th through 12th graders but this winter had fewer than 250. Here, they say, they don’t have to worry about hallway chaos, can concentrate on schoolwork, earn privileges for good behavior, and meet each day to talk about what is bothering them.
“It’s inspiring,” said Rebecca Termilus, 14, an 8th grader who left Ethan Allen School after a physical altercation with a teacher. She likes the calm. “People don’t listen at other schools,” she said.
Historically, however, the system of disciplinary schools in Philadelphia, before and after being privatized more than a decade ago, has been a pipeline for dropping out. It was valued primarily for getting troublesome students out of regular schools, and until recently, little was done to track students once they left the system.
But now, the providers have contracts with requirements to improve attendance, boost reading and math performance, provide social services, help students get promoted and accumulate credits, and send them back to neighborhood schools. Even their designation has changed, from “disciplinary” to “transitional” school.
“This is the first time we had accountability systems built in,” said Ben Wright, the regional superintendent for alternative schools.
Despite a plethora of new information, however, it is still difficult to determine whether the schools are putting students on a path to graduation. Shallcross, for instance, provided data that indicated it was not meeting some contract benchmarks, including those related to improving attendance and increasing math and reading levels – which for most of its entering students is very low, no higher than 3rd grade.
Wright said that boosting attendance and restoring at least 25 percent of the students to regular schools per year are the District’s top priorities – although the latter benchmark is not specified in the contracts.
Instead of keeping students a year, as in the past, the schools are now expected to send students back, shaped-up, within 90 days. Wright said that 125 students were restored in January and another 65 in March.
As far as consequences for not meeting all the contractual goals, Wright said: “As long as [providers] did all the due-diligence work they were supposed to, we wouldn’t penalize them.
“Quite frankly,” he added, “[Shallcross] probably had the lowest-performing kids in the District.”
Camelot, which took over Shallcross from the District in 2005, was allotted more spaces this year in its two transitional and two accelerated schools. Executive Director Bob Lysek said this reflects the District’s satisfaction.
Camelot’s schools “have promoted and graduated a higher percentage of their students than the other providers,” he said. Last year, according to its data, 23 students graduated from Shallcross.
This year, the District added a contract benchmark that will begin measuring how many students who pass through Shallcross and other transitional schools graduate within six years of entering 9th grade.
The only items students are permitted to carry into Shallcross are a folder, pocket money and house keys. Everything else is provided on campus. Kids walk “in protocol:” in a straight line with hands clasped behind their back. In the morning, they are expected to look teachers in the eye and shake hands.
“If a kid won’t shake a hand, something may have happened last night,” said Lysek.
First thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon, students – who are divided by grade level into 17 teams and four halls – attend a “townhouse” meeting, where the teacher shares thoughts on the day completed and the day ahead.
The disciplinary regimen is built around a “status” system. All entering students are “neutral,” the well-behaved become “bulldogs,” and a select group earn the title “executives.” The bulldogs and executives don’t have to walk in protocol and have other privileges and responsibilities. Kids who misbehave are labeled “concern.”
Termilus is a bulldog, and she supports the disciplinary code, the status system, and the discussion sessions.
“You don’t have townhouse at other schools,” she said. “You just have loudspeakers.”
But Termilus is worried that her grades and behavior will regress if she returns to her neighborhood school. Many share her concern. Shallcross says that 44 students have written letters to the District requesting to stay.
Eighth grader Quideem Willis, 15, was transferred from Harding Middle School after fighting with a security guard. At Shallcross, he’s a bulldog, and he likes the structure.
“Everyone wants to be a bulldog,” he said, walking down the hall with his hands freely by his side.
In the classrooms, students seemed relatively engaged, particularly the younger ones. Sixth grade social studies teacher Kirsten Kirschner presided over a lively discussion of the American Revolution.
“Given the nature of the alternative environment, it would be easy for academics to be ignored for the sake of ‘holding down the fort’ but that’s not the case at Shallcross,” Kirschner said. “The drive for academic success is huge. Currently, we’re really rallying behind the PSSA flag.”
Before this year, however, when its contract demanded fully qualified teachers, only about half the teachers were adequately certified. Programs were not being scrutinized for academic rigor.
From Shallcross to college?
Eleventh grader Kyle Mechin was sent to Shallcross after bringing two-inch scissors into Swenson Arts and Technology High School. While he still thinks the District overreacted, he has come to like the school. The Notebook profiled Mechin in the Winter 2009 edition.
“If I go back to a normal high school, I’ll be a much better student than before,” he says. “It gave me a lot of structure I didn’t have.”
But Mechin worries that, beyond the disciplinary blot, a curriculum geared towards remediation has slowed his education.
“I don’t see myself getting into a college of my choice after this,” he says.
The contract also requires that students receive social and emotional support services. The school has 10 behavior counselors, primarily concerned with managing discipline, who work alongside a student services director trained in social work. There appear to be few active partnerships with outside organizations to provide more extensive services.
Students also spend an hour a day in a group discussion called Guided Group Interaction, a less intense form of group therapy taken from a residential treatment model.
At the end of the day, the townhouse meetings are mixed. Some teachers congratulate their students, others warn that behavior must change.
Ninth grader Washington Concepción, 16, is still getting used to Shallcross. Dismissed from Fels for fighting, he has been at the school just a week and is still in neutral status. So far, he likes it. “There’s not as many fights,” he said as he left school for the day. “I can focus more on work.”
Sixteen-year-old Tishon Bradford, another neutral status 9th grader new to Shallcross, isn’t yet sold. “It’s fair, but it’s not fun,” he said. “Because I’m not really into school.”