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Wall to wall at Roxborough: Career academies come back from the brink

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

Principal Dana Jenkins with teacher Mark Dumsha of Roxborough High School. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.) At Philadelphia Academies Inc., staff members are thinking big: They hope their handful of newly funded career academies are soon common in a school district that struggles to keep students engaged.

At Roxborough High School in Northwest Philadelphia, students are just glad somebody stepped in to save a program that looked to be history.

That was the message at Roxborough this week, where the William Penn Foundation announced its plans to provide the Academies program with $1.4 million in new funding to support “Wall to Wall Career Academies” in high schools across the city.

Academies president Lisa Nutter said that the nonprofit’s hands-on learning model could “transform” public schools in Philadelphia. “It’s on a very short list of what works in high school,” she said.

The “Wall to Wall” funding will expand the longstanding Academy model, in which students choose a hands-on, career-focused curriculum and remain matched with a group of teachers throughout their time in high school. Instead of serving just a small subgroup of students, a Wall to Wall academy will serve all of a school’s students.

Roxborough and Lincoln High School will be the first of eight such schools that Academies will support over the next two years, Nutter said. She hopes soon to serve as many as 12,000 students in a dozen or more schools.

It’s a vision that needs District funding to survive in the long run. “The idea is that we’re laying the foundation,” said Jay Vasquez, Philadelphia Academies’ director of school initiatives.

William Penn’s chief philanthropy officer, Laura Sparks, agreed, saying that her organization hoped its investment would “catalyze” a process that leads to long-term District support for the academies. “With the District’s commitment to this model, we think it really can take hold,” she said.

But for now, two years of guaranteed funding looks pretty good at Roxborough.

“We want every kid in the school to have somewhere they’ve chosen to be. … They’ll be more engaged,” said principal Dana Jenkins. “The statistics out there tell you that kids who have good attendance and do well academically are the ones who go on to have success.”

Saving a signature inititative

Roxborough has been home to a cluster of small career academies for several years, including one in arts and cinematography, and another in biosciences. Establishing them was one of the signature efforts of award-winning former principal Steven Brandt, who was widely praised for bringing a structured, college-focused culture to the school.

“When I first came here, it was a little rowdy,” said senior Marqui Kelly, who arrived at the beginning of Brandt’s tenure. “Now it’s more calm, more soothing — everybody wants to learn.”

The academies that Brandt launched helped motivate students and show them that learning has a practical purpose, Kelly said. Many Roxborough students “just don’t want to come to school, basically. The people in the academies, they want to come to school – they always ask, ‘What’s next?’ There’s this adrenaline. It’s 9 in the morning and we want to work, work, work.”

But Brandt surprised the Roxborough community in June when he announced that he was leaving to take a new job in Bucks County. He called it a “bittersweet” decision and cited the District’s latest round of budget cuts as a motivating factor.

Brandt’s departure “was hard for everybody. When we heard the announcement, everybody took a little gasp,” Kelly said. “But we knew when we got Ms. Jenkins that [she] would do just what Mr. Brandt did.”

Jenkins, once Brandt’s assistant principal, did in fact want to sustain the academies, but for most of the summer she was planning for a school year without them. She didn’t learn until August that they would be funded once again, which meant a sudden organizational about-face.

“That was a lot of work to get the school re-rostered and try to keep an upbeat focus,” she said. “The surrounding circumstances have been unbelievable. But we’re still rolling.”

The restoration of the academies and their planned expansion means a sigh of relief for students. “I was so worried that this year was going to be different, that we weren’t going to have any of the resources that we had before,” said senior Jabbara Small. “But I guess that’s not going to be the case.”

Small, a student in the arts academy, spent the morning of the Wall to Wall announcement taking pictures with a big smile on his face. He ended up in the academy because a teacher saw he had some talent and urged him to sign up. He did so and hasn’t regretted it.

“It made me feel good about myself, like I could be something bigger in life,” Small said. To lose the Academies would have been a major blow, he said – both to the school and to him personally. “I would be devastated. I’ve worked so hard,” he said. “It would be like, all the work I did, they took it away. It’d be like all my time was wasted.”

Still a lot of holes to patch

But restoring and expanding Roxborough’s academies is just the first step toward preserving the fragile school culture established under Brandt, Jenkins said.

The biggest need, Jenkins said, is for more counselors to help students with special needs and troubled situations. Brandt used his limited budget flexibility to retain three counselors, whose attentions helped ensure that every student applied to college.

Jenkins, on the other hand, has only a single, part-time counselor, whose limited time means he ends up focused on things like paperwork for special education students.

She’s already shifted most college-related duties from counselors to teachers, who use class time to have students work on college applications, scholarship letters and so on. But when it comes to dealing with students in crisis, she needs more help. “We need our counselors!” Jenkins said. “Many of our kids come here with situations that you couldn’t even imagine, that I couldn’t imagine.”

And while the William Penn grant will provide Wall to Wall schools with some essential human resources to the career academies – most notably, each school gets a full-time “Academy coach” whose task is to help coordinate teachers, classes and curriculum — a lot of what Roxborough needs to make the career programs truly effective is missing.

“We need materials,” Jenkins said. “We need lighting [for the cinematography program]. The sound room is outdated, the cameras. … The list for what we need in our biotech program is four times as long.

"And I can’t even pronounce most of the things they need!” she said with a laugh. “It’s highly technical.”

Students say they need more of just about everything. “It’s been really different [this year]," said Justina McMinn, a junior. “Overcrowded classrooms. Not enough desks. Not enough supplies. We’re making it work. But I feel like we need a lot more help. Things are harder this year.”

Jenkins says she couldn’t be happier that Roxborough’s career academies have survived their brush with death-by-budget-cut.

But she knows that not every Philadelphia student gets the chance that her students will get. “What we’re doing here and at Lincoln is the exception and not the rule today,” she said. “If all goes as we think it will, it will become the norm.”

And for now, she said, Roxborough will do its best with what’s at hand. “We’re pretty low now, so there’s nowhere to go but up,” she said. “We don’t have much of what we need – but we’re working with what we have and we won’t be defeated.”