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ASPIRA’s Excel program works to put older students back on track

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

Small classes. Academic and emotional support before, during and after school. Focus on post-high school ambitions.

The ASPIRA Excel Academy, now in its second year, aims to serve a swath of students who over the years have frustrated educators: youth who are overage, under-credited and frequently out of place in their home schools.

Like the accelerated programs run by the District, the ASPIRA program seeks to put these students on a fast track to course completion — and that elusive high school diploma.

ASPIRA’s program serves 108 students in grades 9 to 12 who otherwise would be enrolled at Olney Charter High School, which was taken over by ASPIRA two years ago as part of the District’s Renaissance turnaround initiative.

The District has 12 such accelerated programs, this spring educating 2,000 students in grades 7 to 12.

Students in ASPIRA’S program attend classes in a wing of the former Cardinal Dougherty High School, about a mile north of Olney Charter High. Most are seniors. Ten students graduated in February, and about 60 will graduate in June, according to Sadiqa Lucas, ASPIRA Excel’s executive director. The program has six teachers, plus six staffers, including Lucas.

Students can acquire as many as 10 credits a school year — two or three credits more than the typical high school course load. Coursework is streamlined and delivered on a block schedule, with longer classes that allow courses to be completed in one semester rather than two. Students, currently limited to seniors only, also can recover credits for courses they failed previously using Plato Coursework, an online curriculum. And tutoring help is available from teachers or using Study Island, an online adaptive learning program.

Desire to graduate

When a student enrolls, “we sit down with them and review their transcripts. What we find is that a lot of our young people don’t realize that they are within a year of graduation,” said Milton Alexander, a vice president of Camelot Schools LLC, an alternative education provider that runs ASPIRA as well as two of the District’s programs, Excel Academy North and Excel Academy South. Those two programs have a combined student population of 665.

“Our students are focused. For them, it’s all about graduation,” said Lucas. “What they want to know is, ‘How many credits do I need to get my diploma?’”

All three Excel academies use a “Back on Track” instructional model developed by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit group that works to enhance education and career options for low-income youth. Collaboration and small-group work is encouraged. Literacy and numeracy skills are stressed. So are basic “employability” skills, including making eye contact, dressing appropriately, and being on time.

The staff seems keenly aware of the stressful situations that many students face once they head home. Some students hold jobs; others have children of their own or siblings to care for. Poverty and dysfunctional home lives are common.

Doors to school open at 8 a.m. Staffers are outside to greet students, who head to the third-floor quarters and gather in a large meeting room for breakfast and conversation. “It’s a time for staff to develop rapport with the kids, to learn what might be going on,” said Lucas.

Meetings and dialogue

The day begins and ends with a school-wide meeting, called "Townhouse," a chance for dialogue between students and staff and for staff to offer both admonitions and motivating comments.

The morning transition, in particular, is important in setting a tone for the day. “We don’t ever want kids going straight from the street into first period,” said Camelot’s Alexander. Teachers are on the lookout for signs of upset. “We are constantly reading behavior, body language.”

But Excel, even with explicit expectations (“norms”) for behavior, is not a disciplinary program. “The kids are older, they want to be here. … We will confront and redirect — we do that in all of our programs — but we focus on building relationships,” he said.

Lucas recalled that “there was pushback” when the program started up in the fall of 2012, with students insisting that they wanted to go back to Olney. But, she said, “we have not experienced students having been here a month wanting to go back.” The small-school atmosphere, individual attention, and academic gains win them over. At the same time, students maintain connections with Olney, including prom and graduation.

Applying for college or other post-secondary training and filling out the FAFSA financial aid forms in a timely fashion are requirements for graduation. The payoff: About 85 percent of last year’s graduates from the three Excel Academy programs won acceptance to post-secondary institutions, according to Alexander.

Angelo Rodriguez, 20, had been out of school for two years and out of luck, his efforts to find a good-paying job thwarted by his lack of a high school diploma. He enrolled at Excel last fall.

Montinique Thomas, 18, faced a similar plight: Trouble at home had interfered with schoolwork and she had dropped out, missing the fall term before enrolling at Excel in January 2012.

This spring, both students are counting the weeks to graduation.

“This program is exactly what I needed,” said Rodriguez. “I looked at getting a GED, but this is better. I realized I was not going to get anywhere without a diploma.”

The small-school atmosphere holds appeal for Thomas, who previously attended high school in New Castle, Del. “My school was so big, the halls were so crowded,” she recalled.

At Excel, there are fewer distractions, she said, and she has done a better job focusing on schoolwork. She’s got a heavy course load — five courses, two of them through the Plato program. After graduation, she plans to enroll at a Center City technical school to train as a hair stylist.

Rodriguez plans to study business administration at Community College of Philadelphia.

“I learned a lot in the jobs I held about running a business. I got really interested. So that’s my goal.”

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