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Stetson: ‘A new beginning for all of us’

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

This morning, Stetson Middle School began its new life as a charter school, opening its doors to roughly 700 students from the predominantly Latino community that surrounds the ancient building at B and Allegheny Streets in Kensington.

But while the uniforms and furniture are all brand new, many of the faces at Stetson are the same.

ASPIRA is unique among the District’s four new Renaissance School turnaround providers in bringing back significant numbers of staff from last year – including principal Renato Lajara and 40 percent of last year’s teachers.

“We have to develop leadership in our community,” said ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon last spring about the decision to retain Lajara. “He is young, he’s motivated, and he’s from the neighborhood. He was put in a leadership position here [by the District], but then left alone to learn as he was going. With us, he will have a whole team to support him.”

Lajara is the only returning principal at the seven new Renaissance charters. (At Daroff Elementary School, Universal Companies brought back Robert Rouse, who had been principal at the school from 2007 to 2009.)

According to representatives from Universal, Mastery Charter, and Young Scholars Charter School, no more than a handful of teachers returned from last year at any of the six schools those groups now operate. At Mastery Smedley and Young Scholars Douglass, no teachers returned.

“It was almost exclusively a lack of interest on [teachers’] part,” said Young Scholars CEO Lars Beck. “Within a week of the match being made, we held an open house, and we only had three teachers come and express interest. The timing was tough on everyone.”

At all Renaissance Schools last spring, all staff were force-transferred and given the opportunity to reapply for their jobs. Charter operators were free to hire as many returning teachers as they desired. Teachers rehired by charter operators lost their union protections but were free to apply for charter leave, which grants public school teachers who leave for charter schools a five-year window to return to a District school without losing their union seniority.

Despite the risks and the tight timeline, there was significant interest among Stetson staff in working for ASPIRA.

“It’s exciting to be part of something new,” explained Nicole Rice, 24, who returned for a second year at Stetson after teaching 7th grade math inclusion at the school last year. “After hearing the frameworks that [ASPIRA] is working under and the people that they are bringing in to try to improve the school, it just made me want to be a part of that.”

On the first morning, parents took pictures of their children as they queued up ouside in Stetson’s new school uniforms – which include ties for boys and skirts for girls. Staff stopped children with untucked shirts, leading to a repeated routine of unbuckling, retucking, and shoulder shrugging as the students made their way into the building.

Inside, Rice and other returning teachers greeted familiar faces with a smile, complimenting them on their sharp new looks and directing them to the auditorium, where all school staff will now greet the entire student body each morning for announcements.

Stetson is one Renaissance School where there appeared to be some recent progress to build upon; for starters, student absenteeism dropped from 17 percent to 12 percent over the past two years. But at ASPIRA Stetson’s first morning assembly, Lajara attempted to highlight all the changes that are now underway.

“It’s a new beginning for all of you…” he began, then caught himself. “It’s a new beginning for all of us.”

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