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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale Mezzacappa / The Notebook

Educators and mayor celebrate highest-scoring and most improved schools

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

Philadelphia education leaders were in the mood for celebration Monday as they presented awards to 22 District and charter schools that made major improvements or maintained high scores on the School District’s measure of success, the School Progress Report.

District officials, along with Mayor Kenney, chose to mark the occasion at Potter-Thomas Elementary School in Fairhill, located in one of the city’s most-challenged neighborhoods. The student population is almost entirely low-income and Latino, and two in five students are English learners.

The SPR score (on a scale from 0 to 100) at Potter-Thomas jumped from just 9 in 2015-16 to 41 in 2016-17 – almost entirely due to improvement in the percentage of students reaching proficiency in reading and math.

“I see potential, I see possibility, I see genius, I see hope” in every student, said principal Dywonne Davis-Harris. “We maintain a safe haven for our students to enable them to grow.”

That theme was echoed by both Kenney and Superintendent William Hite.

“Continual improvement is important for any student, school, or district,” said Kenney. “We always strive to grow and improve, and this report is an indicator of our commitment to provide every student with the education they deserve.”

Kenney made reference to the upcoming return of the District to local control, an effort that he spearheaded. He has pledged more city resources to the District as part of that.

“They made progress. We cannot let them backslide now,” Kenney said. “It’s up to all of us here in Philadelphia. They are our children. They belong to their parents, but they also belong to us. We are creating a local school board to ensure that Philadelphians are in charge of their schools.”

Calculation of the SPR scores takes into account the overall level of achievement, as well as the rate of improvement in state test results. Also included are indicators relating to school climate, such as teacher attendance, student attendance, and disciplinary incidents. For high schools, college and career readiness is added into the mix.

There are two categories of success – schools that have the overall highest scores and those that improved the most. Schools are divided into “peer groups,” matched according to grade level and demographics, and those that had the highest score in each peer group were honored.

Potter-Thomas is in the District’s Turnaround Network, a group of schools that have seen drastic interventions, including rebuilding the staff. Of the 16 schools in the network, six K-8 schools moved up from the lowest of four categories, “intervene,” to the next one, “watch.” Besides Potter-Thomas, those were Mitchell, Muñoz-Marin, Rhodes, Dunbar, and McMichael.

The highest-scoring elementary school was Anne Frank, which serves K-5 students in the far Northeast. The highest-scoring K-8 school was Penn-Alexander, which gets extra resources from the University of Pennsylvania. The highest-scoring middle and high schools are selective admission schools – Masterman and Central.

Overall, 164 schools increased their overall SPR scores, 111 District-run schools and 53 charters. And 49 District schools and 23 charters jumped from one of the four tiers to the next highest. The four tiers are “intervene,” “watch,” “reinforce,” and “model,” which is for those that are highest-performing.

Of the 18 peer groups, charter schools came out on top in 13 of them, District schools in five. Charter schools managed by Universal Companies scored highest in three of the peer groups.

A full list of the peer group leaders can be found here.

Representatives of almost all the schools were there to receive plaques and pose for pictures with Kenney and Hite, as well as School Reform Commission members Joyce Wilkerson and Christopher McGinley.

Although overall achievement rates at Potter-Thomas remain low, Davis-Harris, staffers, and volunteers presented a picture of the school as a nurturing place where every student is valued, teachers work well together on improving instruction, and parents are welcome as volunteers.

Before the presentations, the school’s kindergarten students sang a welcome song and a song about addition, and 3rd graders sang about Martin Luther King Jr.: “He had a dream, and so do we.” They had signs showing their aspirations: teacher, doctor, scientist. They sang about wanting to go to college and make a difference in the world.

“This is my second home,” said Luz Pratt, a parent with two children now in the school and one who has graduated. Pratt volunteers at Potter-Thomas every day. “Even though we live in a tough community, this does not limit our children from achieving their highest potential. With hard work and community, anything and everything is possible.”

Because reading proficiency increased from 11 percent to 16 percent, and math proficiency from 4 percent to 5 percent – and because the lowest 20 percent of students improved their scores significantly, even if they didn’t reach proficiency – the school earned the maximum possible points on the growth scale, which accounted for the huge SPR increase from 2015-16 to 2016-17.

Davis-Harris, who has been principal for nine years, attributes the improvements to smaller class sizes and the ability to have small-group instruction of five or six students that is targeted to their specific needs. Teacher coaches have worked hard on promoting effective instructional models and collaboration, she said.

“There is two hours each of small-group reading and math instruction where students are grouped by their ability,” she said. Before this year, she said, “the supports were not there” for such a focus on individual students.

Potter-Thomas has also been on the merry-go-round of interventions over the years. It was one of the schools managed by Edison Schools in a privatization experiment after the SRC took over, then became a Promise Academy under former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Now, the model used by the Turnaround Network focuses on leadership, using data to modify and improve instruction, real-time coaching for teachers, creating a safe learning environment, and community engagement.

“Empowering teachers is what really makes this work,” said Davis-Harris.

Arielle Evans, a 2nd-grade bilingual teacher, runs an afterschool running club for students.

“Working here has given me the opportunity to grow as an educator and as a person,” she said. “Our teachers go above and beyond to make sure our students’ needs are met.”

Every class has a smartboard, and several activities are offered after school, including the running club, boys’ and girls’ basketball, training for the Penn Relays, and tutoring.

Historic Fairhill, a community group, helped the children plant a vegetable garden, she said.

“This is not just your average neighborhood school,” said Evans. “This is a family that works together to create lifelong learners.”