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Audenried graduates its first class with all four years under Universal

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

The girls were dressed in yellow and the boys in blue on June 17 as the 2015 graduating class of Universal Audenried Charter High School marched through the auditorium at the Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

The 142 graduating seniors who donned the school’s colors are the first to have spent all four years at the school since it was converted in 2011 to a charter under the management of Universal Companies.

“Today is an example, an indication, a sign that we are moving in the right direction,” said Universal CEO Rahim Islam in a speech during the ceremony.

The graduation was a celebration of the students’ success, but also the school’s progress. Few would argue that getting to this point has been easy.

Audenried was closed in 2005 and at the time it had only a 47 percent graduation rate. The school re-opened in a new building in the fall of 2008 and was converted to a charter school operated by Universal in 2011. By 2014, the school’s cohort graduation rate had risen to 70 percent, meaning that 70 percent of those who entered 9th grade persisted to graduate four years later.

The corresponding figure for this year wasn’t immediately available. Islam said that almost 90 percent of the 2014-15 senior class graduated, many of them headed to postsecondary schools in the fall.

The school, serving a mostly Black and low-income population, is one of the District’s three turnaround Renaissance high schools, along with Mastery-Gratz and Olney, run by ASPIRA. It is still struggling academically; according to the District’s School Progress Report, it has pass rates under 10 percent for the Keystone biology and algebra exams and under 20 percent for literature. Its college matriculation rate for graduates is 39 percent.

Still, on the state’s School Performance Profile measures, it ranks toward the top of its peer schools — those closest to it demographically — in measures of achievement, progress, climate, and preparation for college and career.

According to Universal, the class of 2015 received nearly $500,000 in scholarships. Seniors were accepted into colleges including Lincoln University, University of Maryland, Shippensburg University, Cabrini College, University of Pittsburgh, West Chester University, Community College of Philadelphia, Penn State University, and Temple University. One senior, Maurisa Warren, was awarded a full scholarship to West Chester.

Class valedictorian Quamera Williams also received a full scholarship and will head to Temple in the fall. In her speech, she said that it was not easy for the class of 2015. Williams said that two teachers left in the middle of the school year, one unexpectedly and the other due to medical reasons.

“The only thing constant this year was change, but that helped me realize the importance of stability,” Williams said.

Since taking over Audenried, Universal, which operates eight charter schools in Philadelphia, has created a school improvement plan to help advance student outcomes and increase the graduation rates.

Part of the plan has included the use of a student information system called PowerSchool, which generates online reports of a student’s attendance. The reports can be viewed by parents on the school’s website, but they are also used to create a competition for students with the best attendance, said Audenried principal Reginald Johnson.

“We’re talking about being positive instead of just focusing on the negative, [so] we use those reports to really provide incentives to the students,” he said.

Johnson said the school also reviews test data, identifies areas where students did well and where they need more work, and then strategizes how best to alter the curriculum and teaching practices so that students get the most out of their classroom experiences.

“I think when you use [data] like that, it is meaningful,” he said.

Johnson said Audenried engages parents through a free texting service to communicate due dates of tests and major projects. Sydia Bell, a mother of a graduating senior, said she felt grateful for the effort the school has made to keep her informed.

“I get it all. I get phone calls, I get texts. I felt safe,” said Bell, who noted she had a particularly hard time during the school year because her family had moved from California.

“If she even missed a class in between and there was no explanation for it, someone promptly got right with me,” she said.

In his keynote speech, Universal founder Kenny Gamble emphasized responsibility and citizenship among the graduates and urged them to reinvest in their communities and to better the world around them. Gamble also encouraged Black graduates to start small businesses in their neighborhoods.

“All it takes is one committed person. The rest is easy.”

Nafis Johnson, one of the graduating seniors, is an aspiring rapper who calls himself Fisgeez. With Gamble’s help, Johnson has already had his music and video played on MTV and hip-hop radio station Hot 97.

Nafis said his relationship with Gamble has evolved from a musical mentorship into a more personal one, and for that he’s grateful.

“I talk to Mr. Gamble about schoolwork. I talk to him about my home problems. If I don’t know how to deal with a certain situation he’ll try to let me know [how to handle it]. I really appreciate him. I love that guy.”

Greg Windle is a summer intern at the Notebook.

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