This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Around noon on Wednesdays, the beating of African drums reverberates throughout all five floors of FACTS Charter School in Chinatown.
It’s ensemble time, a staple of the curriculum at FACTS, which stands for Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures. There are six types to choose from, including martial arts, Indonesian dance, and Chinese opera.
Third through 8th graders can participate in an ensemble once a week, which is just one of the folk-arts experiences available at the 10-year-old school.
While about 20 students under the tutelage of artists Edward Smallwood and Ama Schley learned the rhythms of the sang ba, kinkany, and dun dun – with upturned recycling buckets standing in for drums – another group was playing the Vietnamese zither with linguist and musician Ngô Thanh Nhàn.
As 5th grader Fionna expertly strummed the harp-like dàn tranh with elegant fingernail picks, she revealed that she can play nine musical instruments, eight of which she learned at FACTS.
This is not test-prep. It is the opposite. Yet FACTS students, most of whom come from low-income families, have PSSA proficiency rates in reading and math that are among the city’s highest.
“We truly believe that the social curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum,” said Pheng Lim, the principal. “We believe in educating the whole child.”
One of the most important elements of that is to honor the students’ backgrounds and languages, part of a culture of respect that permeates the school.
That is the route to high scores, Lim believes – not rigid test prep or pep rallies that cause anxiety and pressure at many schools.
Yes, there is some effort “to familiarize students with what the test is like,” said Lim. But she also gives students a letter reiterating that the test “does not tell us how good a person you are … how hard you work to learn new things [or] how smart you are.”
In 2014, FACTS received the highest K-8 score in Philadelphia, 88.4 out of 100, on the state’s school rating scale. That year, 84 percent of its students scored proficient or advanced in math, and 75 percent in reading.
In 2015 the PSSA was overhauled; statewide, scores plummeted. FACTS’ proficiency rates declined, especially in math, but were still good enough to place it among the top schools in the city.
“I expected the scores to go down a lot more,” said Lim, called Principal Pheng (pronounced Pang) at school. “I was pleasantly surprised.”
Asians comprise two-thirds of FACTS’ nearly 500 students. The families, many with refugee experience, are from countries including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, and India. Twenty percent are African American, and the rest Latino, White, and mixed race.
Some say FACTS’ scores are high because most students are Asian, who generally do better on standardized tests than other groups, including Whites.
But an analysis of the 2014 PSSA, the last one that was broken down by race and demographic category, shows that FACTS’ Asian students outperform Asian students districtwide by an average of 15 percentage points in each grade.
The data also show that other subgroups, such as African Americans and students learning English, score significantly higher across subjects than the city average for those groups in most grades.
In addition to the folk arts experiences, the FACTS curriculum emphasizes values like stewardship. In social studies and science, often given short shrift in elementary schools, students do projects to study how issues “like hunger, food, and water affect people, and what can you do to make a difference,” said Lim. Literacy lessons include a lot of writing, and math concentrates on learning concepts in depth.
“That’s why we get the good results we get here,” said Ricque Porter, a teacher for seven years and now an administrator. “Students get a good foundation in academics and the skills they need, but we also focus on the whole child.”
And, she added, “We make sure they have a sense of community here.”