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A tale of two schools

At one school targeted for overhaul, parents, students, and community members showed up in droves to defend the staff. At the other, the auditorium was nearly empty.

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

Eleven Philadelphia schools have been chosen for major overhauls, and the District has hired a consultant to visit each one and hear from local community members about what those plans should involve.

But if early meetings are any indication, these schools that may seem quite similar based on test scores and other dry data are widely different in their levels of community engagement.

No two schools better exemplify that contrast than Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School, which held gatherings just a couple of hours apart on Tuesday evening.

At Kensington, a crowd of more than 150 people filled the small cafeteria to overflowing. Members of the audience forcefully questioned how outsiders parachuting in for a two-day study could possibly evaluate or understand the value of what the school community has there.

At Ben Franklin, 10 people huddled at the front of a massive auditorium.

In Kensington, community members from the principal to parents to teachers to the security officer stood up for the intangibles that, they said, make Kensington Health Sciences a port in the storm for young people living in a battered neighborhood. They need more help and resources, not upheaval, they said.

“This is no institution,” said Ed Green, the dean of students, who has been at the school since its inception eight years ago and has been in one or another Kensington high school for 19 years. “This is Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and we are family. I want to see you evaluate how you see kids here loved and taken care of.”

What happens at Kensington Health Sciences, he said, “needs to be duplicated, replicated, not torn down. You can’t put numbers on the love and care we give our kids.”

George Roesser, a retired District principal who is the acting superintendent for the network that includes Kensington Health Sciences, kept repeating that the school was designated for turnaround based on the School Progress Report, which evaluates schools and scores them on a scale of 1 to 100. The index is based largely on academic factors, including test scores and graduation rates, as well as climate indicators, such as the use of in-school and out-of-school suspension.

Earlier this month, Superintendent William Hite designated 11 schools that have a three-year average District performance score of less than 15 for some kind of overhaul. Kensington Health Sciences’ score was 13.3.

The schools will not be closed or converted to charters, but they could see major staff changes.

The chart showing Kensington Health Sciences Academy’s trend was projected on a screen up front, but speaker after speaker dismissed it as mere numbers.

The District hired a firm called Cambridge Education to conduct an evaluation and report back on each school, after which Hite will choose how to intervene. Cambridge representative Chris Finn tried to explain to the crowd what his firm would be doing.

“We’re an objective company coming in to do this evaluation,” said Finn, a former principal and administrator in several large urban districts, including New York. He explained it as a two-day process that includes classroom visits, interviews, and separate focus groups of teachers, students, and parents.

But Finn was quickly compelled to cede the microphone as people clamored to talk.

“If you are here two days, you will see who we are and what we are doing,” said Green, the dean of students. “We are all here to make a difference in the lives of every kid and in the community. We eat, sleep and breathe Kensington Health Sciences Academy. We are on a mission, sir.”

Deprived of resources

The District has created a menu of five turnaround options, one of which leaves the door open for schools to craft their own plans. The options are:

  • Engaging a contract partner to run programs or manage the school.
  • “Restarting,” which means phasing in a new program grade by grade.
  • Merging with a “high-quality provider,” presumably a better-performing school, although this isn’t clear.
  • Initiating an “evidence-based” plan for academic improvement, which would apparently be done with existing staff.
  • Entering the District’s Turnaround Network, which would bring a staff shakeup. At schools in that network, originally called Promise Academies, all staff had to reapply for their jobs and only half could be kept on.

Kensington Health Sciences, which has a career and technical education (CTE) focus on health technologies, is more than half Latino and about a third African American. More than 80 percent of the 450 or so students live below the poverty line; 28 percent are in special education and 18 percent are English language learners.

At the meeting, principal James Williams, who is perpetually smiling and upbeat, vowed to use this scrutiny as an opportunity to showcase a special place.

“We will use this process to introduce Kensington Health Sciences Academy to the rest of the world,” he said. “Wow, wow, I say that with a great deal of pride. My staff is the very best staff in the School District of Philadelphia. It is amazing, make no mistake about that. And my students, the 9th graders, the 10th graders, the juniors, my beloved seniors. Guys, anybody who spends time with us will know the truth, and that is going to impress them.”

Later, he said: “You think an evaluation going to slow us down? You don’t know Mr. Williams at all then.”

Speakers decried how the District seems always to blame teachers and the principal for problems, when, they said, schools such as Kensington Health Sciences have been systematically deprived of resources. One young math teacher rose to question low proficiency rates for algebra – they are in the single digits – noting that a class of students went without a certified instructor for two months last year because a substitute could not be found after a teacher left. This also affected the other teachers in the building, who had to fill in.

Despite that, 60 percent more students scored proficient in algebra than the year before, he said. (The District’s School Progress Report results from 2014-15, the most recent numbers available, were used to evaluate the school.)

Teachers, families, and students filled the tables and lined the back and sides of the room to show their loyalty.

“My sister pushed and pushed to get to this school,” said Jada Gonzalez, a sophomore at Bodine High School. Her sister, Tatyana Gonzalez, is a 9th grader.

“She’s got relationships with the principal and students and teachers. She’s very smart and she’s now in classes with 11th graders,” Jada said. “I don’t see what the issue is with education and test scores when these teachers are helping our students get where they need to be.”

Jada and Tatyana’s mother, Stephanie Rivera, said Tatyana turned down admission to more selective schools to attend Kensington Health Sciences.

“When we came on tour here, she fell in love with the school and the environment,” Rivera said. “I am comfortable sending my child to a school where I know staff members are going to look out for my kid. It’s not just the education. It’s that they see a kid’s face and say, ‘how are you today?’ I don’t want my kid to be just another number.”

More than numbers

Hite had two representatives at the meeting. One was Donna Frisby-Greenwood, the head of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia and a member of Hite’s cabinet. The other was Zachary Epps, the District’s director of the Office of Advocacy and External Engagement.

Frisby-Greenwood said afterward, referring to the turnout and the passion: “This was amazing.”

She added, “Clearly the climate is great here [but] we have to do something to support academics. This process will reveal what needs to be done.”

Kensington Health Sciences has also been designated as a community school, an initiative of Mayor Kenney’s Office of Education that proposes to form partnerships and shore up a school’s non-academic supports for students and families, making schools neighborhood hubs for everything from recreation to health services. A question as to why the school is part of both projects was not answered, but Williams told the crowd that “what we are doing with the community school model will be an example for other schools to follow.”

Another person who was puzzled by the turnaround designation was Raymond John, who zeroed in on Kensington Health Sciences when he founded an organization called 12Plus to help students in neighborhood high schools get on a path to college.

The small nonprofit group, started in 2012, operates in three schools, and Kensington Health Sciences was its first.

“We work to create a college-going culture,” John said. “It is so important to do this in neighborhood schools.”

After the meeting, he eagerly showed off the college center that 12Plus has created out of an unused classroom. The center serves as a library, a computer lab, and a place for students just to hang out and study. They also get help with applications and financial aid forms from three “fellows” who work in each school.

He said he has been tracking the progress of graduates that the organization has worked with. His numbers contrast sharply with what the District says is the case at Kensington Health Sciences.

Last year, John said, 80 percent of the graduates pursued a postgraduate path, either a four-year or two-year college or a trade school. Of that 80 percent, 63 percent enrolled in the post-secondary program in the fall after graduation, which significantly increases their chances of finishing.

“The deep-rooted relationships here are not reflected in the [School Performance Report],” John said, echoing what the speakers said. “They take care of kids who have so many other factors in their lives – like jobs or being parents – and help them calibrate their lives.”

‘Not a bleak thing’

The uproar at Kensington Health Sciences contrasted sharply with the mood at Benjamin Franklin High School when it had its community meeting just a couple of hours later on Tuesday evening.

At the tiny gathering there, newly appointed principal Abdul-Mubdi Muhammad begged three students who showed up to spread the word.

“We want to see a lot more parents here, a lot more community members here,” he said, his voice echoing off the wood-paneled walls.

Muhammad said that if Ben Franklin can convince the District that it has initiatives worth saving and the support of its community, the school could be spared significant disruption.

“But I need parents to champion it most,” he said. “If parents are out here for those focus groups, then our fate is in our own hands. But if they’re not here, then there’s no voice.”

Muhammad admitted it’s tough to mobilize parents at large comprehensive high schools, which are often tasked with educating students who don’t have the resources or wherewithal to choose magnet or charter schools.

Ben Franklin’s students come from all over Philadelphia, because the school is located just north of Center City and on the Broad Street subway line. About 85 percent of the school’s students commute from more than two miles away, said Muhammad.

Ben Franklin’s District performance score has hovered between 5 and 10 over the last three years, well below the cut-off point of 15 for schools in the turnaround initiative. During the 2014-15 school year, just 10.4 percent of students passed the algebra Keystone exam, 14.9 percent passed the literature exam, and 5.2 percent passed the biology exam.

The school has also been rocked by a series of scarring events over the last year. In June 2015, a fire forced the school to close for a day. A half year later, in January 2016, a school fight resulted in a 16-year-old allegedly firing a gunshot. Then in May, video surfaced of an altercation between a Ben Franklin student and a school police officer. Youth activists from the Philadelphia Student Union called for the dismissal of the officer in the video and a “complete overhaul” of school policing training and tactics.

Since taking over as principal earlier this year, Muhammad has launched a school Twitter account and attempted to organize a Home & School Association to promote parent involvement. He knows it won’t be easy, but he thinks the school has plenty worth preserving.

He points to its deep roster of career and technical education programs. Last year, the District launched a state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing CTE program at Ben Franklin. Other CTE courses offered include culinary arts, welding, and drafting and design. He says the school also has an unusually high number of sports programs and a strong JROTC program.

Muhammad has already been an administrator at two large public high schools in Philadelphia: John Bartram in Southwest Philadelphia and Audenried in the Point Breeze neighborhood. His time at Bartram began with promise, but ended abruptly after he was accused of shoving a student.

At Audenried, Muhammad was part of the administrative team that shepherded the school through its own turnaround process. In 2011, the school became a charter run by Universal Companies under the District’s Renaissance initiative.

That option isn’t on the table for Ben Franklin or any of the other 10 schools slated for intervention this year. Nor will the District close any of the 11 schools.

The absence of those two drastic remedies gives Muhammad hope that he can keep Ben Franklin largely intact.

“It’s not a bleak thing,” he said. “We have options. We have options to move forward. But it’s really going to depend on the constituency groups coming forward and talking.”

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