This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At age 20, Dylan Hill finally graduated high school this summer.
After three years at Tacony Academy Charter, he had accumulated only half the credits he needed, so he tried the cyber school route, enrolling first in Pennsylvania Cyber Charter –– drawn by its ads and what his friends told him – and then Agora Cyber Charter.
He says he spent a nightmarish two years fruitlessly trying to enroll in the right courses and get teachers to pay attention to him, as well as find and update his transcript. After this five-year odyssey, he found One Bright Ray, which runs three of the Philadelphia School District’s “accelerated schools,” designed to re-engage students and lead them on a path to their diplomas.
In one year there, he has accumulated enough credits to graduate.
“Teachers are down to earth with the students and give us one-on-one attention more often,” Hill said. “They make you actually want to come to school and learn.”
The journey of Jeffrey Martinez, 17, has been shorter. He graduated in June after three years in high school.
Martinez had first tried one of the District’s new innovative schools, the U School, which counts on students to take more control over their own education. It wasn’t a good fit for him.
“I felt I needed to be handled by more strict rules,” he said.
So he ended up at Excel Academy North, an accelerated school operated by Camelot, a national education company. After two additional years, he had acquired enough credits to earn a diploma.
“They let you go at your own pace,” he said. “They helped me stay on track to graduate.” He plans to get an associate’s degree at a community college and then join the Air Force.
One Bright Ray and Excel Academy North are part of the District’s Opportunity Network, which includes 25 alternative schools and programs that reflect the vast variety of needs and circumstances of Philadelphia’s young people. Eleven of them are accelerated high schools, which speed up credit accumulation for students who have dropped out or fallen behind in high school. Three others are “transition schools” for students flagged for disciplinary reasons, including one for very young students who need a change.
Other available choices are the Educational Options Programs (EOPS), which are night schools for older students who have work or family obligations; E3 centers (Education, Employment, and Empowerment) operated by the Philadelphia Youth Network for students who are trying to get a GED; and Learning Academies, for students returning from incarceration or foster placement.
The District also runs a dual enrollment program with Community College of Philadelphia in which students can catch up on high school credits while also earning an associate’s degree, and a school in the Juvenile Justice Center for students charged with felonies who are awaiting adjudication.
Most of the accelerated and transition schools are run under contract by outside providers. The biggest is Camelot, which works with school districts in seven states to provide accelerated and transition programming. Camelot favors a tight structure for students, with constant supervision, from the classroom to the hallway, and a strict behavioral system that allows students to rise in rank and earn privileges.
But the providers contracted to run the accelerated schools use a wide spectrum of practices. They range from using metal detectors and conducting daily searches in which cell phones are confiscated to doing project-based learning where student freedom is a guiding principle.
But there isn’t currently a systematic way to match students with the programs that might suit them best. Since 2012, the District’s re-engagement services have fallen victim to budget cuts; staffing at the main center was reduced and a site in Kensington was closed. Students interviewed said they chose an accelerated school based primarily on word of mouth, and some bounce around from one to another.
Data for evaluating these schools has been scant, but the District is about to pilot a system called the Alternative Education Progress Report (AEPR) that will be a sister to, but not the same as, the School Progress Report that comes out annually for each District school. This report will attempt to capture metrics that offer more nuance in determining whether the schools are fulfilling their mission.
“Numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story of a school,” said Christina Grant, assistant superintendent of the District’s Opportunity Network.
These reports will use both statistics, such as graduation rates, and more qualitative measures, such as success in placing students in jobs at the places where they have interned. “We’ve stepped back and built out a framework,” Grant said. “We don’t know if we’ll ever have an apples-to-apples comparison, but we will be able to have a level of transparency.”
Grant said the AEPR will also try to evaluate the rigor of academic offerings.
It’s not enough, she said, just to create “environments that are safe and happy, but are they actually teaching the students something? We do them a disservice if we are keeping them safe, but they are not learning anything.”
Overall, Grant said, the 11 accelerated schools report that in 2015-16, 85 percent of students within striking distance of graduation based on their total credits did, in fact, earn a diploma. However, this average reflects a broad range in graduation persistence among individual schools and programs.
The accelerated school that awards students the most freedom in their daily routine is El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington, with a graduation rate of 87 percent for seniors in 2015-16.
Every morning, El Centro’s principal, JuDonn DeShields, sits in his office with the door open. He can see students as they approach the sign-in desk. He greets them, but he also asks them how they are — whether everything’s all right.
DeShields has restructured the school so that there is a counselor on each of its three floors. One-third of the school’s 200 students attend classes on each floor, and each counselor is responsible for one floor of students.
“We try to make them feel like they’re more than just a number, more than just a problem, like a lot of previous schools have made them feel,” DeShields said. “We don’t have metal detectors, we don’t have police officers, and yet we have maybe one or two fights per year. We’re creating a culture of care.”
El Centro was opened in 2009 by Big Picture Philadelphia, a nonprofit that is part of the international Big Picture network, which operates more than 50 schools in the United States using project-based assessments, outside mentorship, and career internships. One theme of the school’s work is helping students find their passions and interests.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, students have academic courses organized into three blocks that emphasize group work and student discussion: science and technology; engineering and math; and writing and social studies. After lunch they have advisory class, where newer students work on advisory-wide projects and students closer to graduation work on individual projects.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students go to their career internships, from auto shops to local nonprofits.
“Students come to us disengaged, without a lot of confidence in their academic skills. They’re often expecting to fail,” DeShields said. “We try to give them hands-on, engaging projects so they can gain some confidence in their skills, but also so the work feels connected to something real.”
Camelot has a different approach and philosophy, but its leaders say they also are intent on giving students individual attention. The company, which has operated in Philadelphia since 2004, runs two accelerated and two transition schools, for a total of 1,100 students.
At Camelot Academy, one of the transition schools, students quietly walk the halls in single file wearing black collared shirts and khaki pants, with a few rare exceptions wearing casual outfits.
Along with some artwork and inspirational posters, the halls are lined with students’ names and rankings, based on behavior and grades, which are updated each month. Those wearing the casual clothes have earned the highest rating for the last month and are called “executives.” The executives are considered part of the student government, along with the middle-ranked students, who are called either “eagles” or “hawks,” depending on whether they are in the school’s accelerated or transition programs.
These students are rewarded by not having to follow the same rules as other students, such as remaining quiet in the hallways for high school students or having to walk the hall with their hands behind their backs for middle school students.
“Students who end up in the transition programs have engaged in things that broke the code of conduct, so we have to have a high bar for structure,” said Grant.
The school’s transition program sets aside two-and-a-half hours each week for group counseling, and the accelerated program uses that time to get students ready for graduating high school — filling out federal financial aid forms, writing a resume, applying to colleges and jobs.
Camelot also holds orientations where they explain how the school works and meet with students and families to develop personalized learning plans. Transition students set short-term academic goals, and accelerated students develop a graduation plan that lays out the courses they’ll need.
Alyssa Boyle, principal of Camelot’s transition school, said that the average reading level for incoming high school freshmen is 5th or 6th grade. She said the that school deals with an especially high-needs population of students and that it has formed a partnership with the District to give trauma training to every teacher.
“We’re looking for a way to transition them back to their neighborhood school,” said Boyle. That involves getting them to understand themselves and their feelings and behavior.
Students in transition schools have been transferred because they violated the code of conduct or had a disciplinary incident, but many students in accelerated schools have also had disciplinary problems.
“Our kids are very angry,” Grant said. “The key is getting them to a point where they understand deeply and concretely that they can walk away. They don’t have to respond if a girl is talking about you.
“It’s getting to the heart of that, and, by the way, we want you to fall in love with reading and math.”
Greg Windle is a freelance writer for the Notebook. Dale Mezzacappa contributed to this story. This story first appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of the Notebook.