This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Avvonya Payne was so determined this summer to get her daughter Alicia into a good, safe school that if need be, "I’d have sold my house and gone into a shelter."
But she was confident that wouldn’t be necessary when neighborhood recruiters from Simon Gratz High School spotted Alicia on the street and convinced her this was where she belonged. "Mom," she said when she got home. "This is the school I want to go to."
"It was like the heavens opened up and God answered my prayers," her mother said as she sat in the office of the school’s new principal, LaQuanda Jackson.
Payne had been unhappy with conditions at Northeast High School, where Alicia went last year. And Gratz – one of 19 Philadelphia schools on the federal persistently dangerous schools list – ordinarily might not have been considered an escape hatch.
But Gratz’s new operator, Mastery Charter Schools, is determined to change both the reputation and the reality. It has been a war waged on two fronts – planning changes at the school and selling those changes to neighborhood residents who might otherwise have their children apply elsewhere. In Alicia’s case, they said she would be walked to school if that’s what it took.
Similar recruitment efforts are taking place at another neighborhood high school, Olney, under a new operator, ASPIRA of Pennsylvania.
Both were named Renaissance Schools by the District earlier this year and both are trying to attract more neighborhood students who otherwise might have transferred out, or tried to.
"We’re trying to encourage more neighborhood kids to come back," says Courtney Collins-Shapiro, deputy chief innovation officer of Mastery.
"By next year we hope the word will be out that we’ve turned the school around … that it’s a good place to be."
Both Gratz and Olney have used mailings, information sessions, home visits, and neighborhood recruiting to try to fill their enrollments. Mastery paid community residents to recruit and even used paid radio spots and two billboards on Hunting Park Avenue. The schools also worked through community organizations to spread the word. (Officials at a third new Renaissance high school, Audenried, say they expect to fill the school without major recruiting efforts).
Remaking the schools’ image is a formidable task. According to District figures for 2010, 60 percent of students in the Gratz catchment area and a third in the Olney catchment area transfer out.
It is a citywide problem. According to District figures, the percentage of students transferring to a school other than their neighborhood school ranges up to 80 percent in the Germantown High School catchment area and is over 50 percent for most neighborhood schools. Gratz is actually in the middle of the pack and Olney has the lowest rate. As students have transferred out, the population of many neighborhood schools has dwindled.
Ideally, District officials say, students would transfer out of their catchment area only if they qualified for a more selective school or specialized school or wanted a program only available elsewhere, such as the automotive technology program at West Philadelphia High School.
In that spirit, Collins-Shapiro says Gratz isn’t necessarily trying to attract those students who might get into the most selective public schools but is instead angling for students who might otherwise transfer to other neighborhood or citywide schools strictly on academic or safety issues.
Indeed, both Mastery and ASPIRA see safety as perhaps the key issue. At student focus groups earlier this year, Jackson says she was repeatedly asked, "Are you going to make (other students) stop walking the halls?"
"The halls are just for a transition from class to class," says Jackson, a former assistant principal in Burlington City, N.J., and a recent graduate of the Mastery principal apprentice program.
In each school, teachers and administrators will have hallway stations at the end of each class period.
Jackson said she hopes for both a "significant decrease in violent incidents" at Gratz and a first-year increase in PSSA proficiency in reading and math from nine percent of the students to 25 percent.
At Olney, hopes are equally high. ASPIRA made one big change immediately: After several years of being divided into Olney East and West, the two schools are one again.
At a recent orientation day, prospective 9th graders and their parents passed through metal detectors into a cordon featuring ice water and smiling teachers and administrators.
"Our students will be as competitive as any students in the city," said Principal Jose Lebron, sleeves rolled up as his voice boomed into the sweltering, cavernous auditorium.
"If you’re not in uniform, you can’t enter the building. Parents, this is one of those times you play a key role.
"My message to the staff is that they respect students at all times." Of the students, he said, he would demand "total respect for teachers and administrators at all times."
Lebron, who is equally comfortable speaking English or Spanish, was a principal at Edison High School and two other city schools before retiring in 2007 to take a series of temporary assignments for the District. He said he had been lured back to full-time duty by the prospect of turning around a troubled neighborhood school.
The teachers, he told the crowd of about 150 students and parents, were attracted by the same challenge: "Every single one of them is here because they want to be here. They were not assigned."
LeTretta Jones, who runs the District’s Office of Student Placement, said that while Gratz and Olney are now charters, "They are still neighborhood schools" and must give first preference to residents from their catchment area and students who attended last year. The District will continue to manage the transfer process for out-of-area students who want to attend the Renaissance charter high schools.
Officials at both schools say they will need to attract out-of-area students at least this year and that their efforts show signs of bearing fruit.
By early August, Collins-Shapiro said, some 240 students from outside the catchment area had applied for a lottery to fill any remaining places. She estimated that Gratz would need 275 out-of-area students to fill its 1,157 slots.
While some parents were saying, "We’ll wait and see if you turn the school around," she said, Mastery had also received inquiries from parents whose students were enrolled in non-public schools last year.
Alberto Calderon, executive director of ASPIRA, and Evelyn Nunez, superintendent of ASPIRA Schools, are confident they can fill Olney’s 1,660 slots despite the fact that only 400 of the feeder schools’ 751 8th grade graduates originally chose the school last year.
Nunez said that at the orientation session, she had spoken to six students who had been accepted elsewhere but were now considering Olney.
And Calderon said that he expected more than 30 students from Stetson Middle School, an ASPIRA charter, to come to Olney even though they live in the Edison High School catchment area.
"They know what we did at Stetson," Calderon said.