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Scenes from the Renaissance process: Smedley’s school council hits the road

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

Charlene Young, a parent at Smedley Elementary in Frankford, doesn’t want much for her daughter’s school – just an end to the chaos.

“More controlled classrooms,” she said. “More organization, more respect for the teachers, more respect for each other inside the school.”

Jana Wilcox, development director at the Young Scholars Charter School, promised that her team could deliver.

“It’s all about creating structure and order,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But what is going to happen overnight is a dramatic change in expectations – and consistency among the adults. A real no-excuses policy.”

Last Thursday, Young and five other members of Smedley’s School Advisory Council visited Young Scholars, one of five providers that the District has declared qualified to run Smedley as a Renaissance School next fall. The Smedley delegates learned that Young Scholars has great confidence in its academic model. They also learned that the school, founded in 1999, has had its share of growing pains.

“Young Scholars three years ago was not the school you see today,” said Wilcox. “We had average, at best, academic performance, very poor school culture. We had a lot of behavior issues…. We had fights in the parking lot and fights in the school, and our attention was not on learning. So our board decided that’s not why we started a charter school.”

Young Scholars’ board launched a turnaround plan of its own, Wilcox said, bringing in new leadership, reorganizing the academic structure and stepping up efforts to control school climate. After years of struggling academically, Young Scholars has made adequate yearly progress for three out of the last four years, and the Young Scholars team says the turnaround lessons they learned along the way are the best possible preparation for taking over Smedley.

Nonetheless, the Smedley delegation learned that that despite submitting a 100-page application, Young Scholars has yet to determine exactly how it would address many of Smedley’s specific challenges. “It’s hard, hard, hard,” said Wilcox, Young Scholars’ development director. “The first year’s going to be hard – we know that. We’re going to strive for perfection, but we’re not going to be perfect the first year.”

Of all the Renaissance Schools, Smedley may be in the most dire straits. Its school review, prepared by outside observers earlier this year, declared that the school had a profound leadership vacuum – its principal is on extended medical leave. Plus, it said, Smedley lacks a safe and orderly environment and has no unified mission to produce high student achievement.

“Instruction is not occurring in most classrooms,” the review said.

Parent involvement is another issue: at the first Renaissance Schools informational meeting in February, just five parents showed up.

When the providers were asked to name the schools they’d like to work with in their requests-for-proposal, Smedley was the only school that got no mention at all. At that time, Young Scholars did not specify any schools.

Wilcox promised the Smedley team that if they recommend her charter to run their school, some improvements would start right away. Expectations for students, she said, will be made crystal clear. Classes will be safe and orderly. Student-teacher ratios will drop to 15 to 1, and as low as 10 to 1 for special education students. Intense outreach to local parents will begin immediately. And administrators will stand at the school gates every morning to shake hands with every student.

“The idea is, we respect them, we’re welcoming them into our community every single day, and we want them to walk in ready for what’s expected of them,” said Wilcox.

But is Young Scholars really ready for Smedley? That’s what the visiting delegation wanted to know, and they peppered Wilcox with questions:

  • How would Young Scholars handle Smedley’s large population of autistic and special education students?
  • How would Young Scholars work with Smedley’s physical space? How would it reconfigure the school’s large classrooms to fit the Young Scholars’ small-class model?
  • How would Young Scholars, a middle school, adjust its curriculum for an elementary school like Smedley?
  • How would Young Scholars, whose current student body is almost entirely African American, handle the large number of Smedley students for whom English is a second language?

Wilcox ’s answer in every case amounted to, “We’re working on it.”

Special education and language issues will be a challenge, she said, but Young Scholars will start with a total reassessment of everyone in the school, and then bring in all the counselors and support staff needed to handle the kids. The new curriculum will be developed this summer. Space issues will be tricky, but once Young Scholars gets access to the building, they’ll make it work.

And even Wilcox had to throw up her hands when the group started asking questions about the future of Smedley’s non-teaching staff or its Home and School Association. “To be fair, we have about as much info as you do,” she said. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants as much as you are.”

This admission didn’t surprise or discourage the Smedley delegation. Members were impressed by the orderly, cheerful atmosphere at Young Scholars: bright and clean hallways and classrooms; smiling, uniformed students; ubiquitous pennants and posters encouraging good behavior and college attendance. They nodded appreciatively as the staff described the academic program and its results: Young Scholars students are now outpacing their District counterparts in both math and reading.

Last year, 60 percent of students scored proficient on reading and 66 percent in math.

And despite concerns about Young Scholars’ ability to handle Smedley’s challenges – troubled students, hard-to-reach parents, poverty-stricken neighborhood – the delegation wrapped up its day in an optimistic mood.

“I would love to see Smedley look like this,” said Charlene Young.

With several providers yet to visit, Young didn’t want to call Young Scholars her top choice just yet. But she said that no matter what a given providers’ shortcomings may be, the status quo is unacceptable.

“I’m hopeful,” said Young. “I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to come in and do it. I’m not going to be negative about it. Something’s going to change, something has to change – we’re just going to accept it, go with it, and try to make it work.”

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