This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia District and charter schools continue to make steady progress as measured by the District’s performance metric, officials said, showcasing the achievement Wednesday with an awards ceremony at one of the standouts, Hartranft Elementary in Fairhill.
“Our schools across the city are improving in the areas that matter most to student success,” said Superintendent William Hite.
The performance metric, called the School Progress Report (SPR), emphasizes more than test scores and goes beyond looking at what percentage of students are academically proficient. Although it recognizes high achievers, it also highlights schools that make significant and steady progress over time and measures other factors, including school climate, attendance, and college and career readiness for high schools. It divides schools into four tiers, from “intervene” at the bottom to “model” at the top.
From 2014-15 to 2017-18, the average overall SPR score increased nine points.
“The point of this is to recognize progress. That’s what this is about,” said Hite.
Schools like Hartranft, located in a desolate neighborhood, have significant challenges, he said, “and they don’t move overnight from the lowest tier to the highest.”
A total of 44 schools were recognized: 33 schools were cited for three consecutive years of improvement on their overall SPR scores, and 11 improved by two tiers. Five did both – three consecutive years of improvement as well as improving by two tiers since 2014-15. Of the 44 schools, 19 were charters.
Hartranft was cited for making three consecutive years of improvement on the overall SPR score.
Principals or other representatives received plaques from Hite and Mayor Kenney, who attended – although he was mobbed by reporters on another matter altogether, the corruption indictment of labor leader Johnny Dougherty and City Council member Bobby Henon, among others.
Though distracted, Kenney was undeterred in underscoring the value of education.
“This is the most important thing we do,” he told the crowd in Hartranft’s auditorium. Although police and firefighting and keeping roads in good repair are essential, he said, “Education is the most important thing any government can do.”
Pointing to the Hartranft students sitting in the crowd and a few on the stage, he said, “These are our kids, not some other neighborhood’s kids, not ‘those people’s’ kids, but our kids.”
Among the charter schools recognized was Richard Allen, a middle school in a tough area of Southwest Philadelphia that had been recommended for closure, but got a reprieve from the Board of Education. It was cited for three years of improving SPR scores.
“While its test scores suffered,” said founder and CEO Larry Jones said of his school, “the thing the progress report does is look across the board at what a school does. We almost don’t know what a school is until we take a deep look at what we’re doing well and continue to do well.”
Three schools run by Mastery and two schools operated by Universal were also cited.
“We have stable leadership” at these schools, said Penny Nixon, Universal’s academic director, although teacher turnover is an issue.
“We just work as hard as we can to make sure good teaching and learning happens in classrooms every day,” she said. “We’re sticking to the roots of what matters in education.”
Hartranft is a block away from the imposing shell of the long-abandoned St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church, which sits as a hulking reminder of the change and decline that have overtaken parts of the city. About three-quarters of the students are black, and most of the rest are Latino. As part of the ceremony, students recited poems by Langston Hughes in both English and Spanish, and a 4th-grade choir gave an enthusiastic rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
“We’re going to go through challenges each and every day, but when it comes to the word ‘obstacle,’ that’s not something that we even acknowledge,” principal Jason Lytle said.
Lytle took over the school five years ago, and in his first year, he needed to hire 15 new staffers. The second year, that was reduced to five, and over the last few years, the staff has stabilized with minimal turnover. “There was a stigma” to working in this area of the city, he said.
It used to be that he had to take anyone who applied. “Now, I can choose who comes here,” he said.
He called the teachers’ commitment to the students “unparalleled.” People who work at the school now “embrace the philosophy that all children can succeed.”
The District brought together four principals of schools that made impressive progress, including Lytle, to talk about their schools. The principals cited several factors necessary to drive improvement: valuing and promoting teamwork, being welcoming to parents, believing in the potential of all students, and encouraging leadership among everyone in the school rather than being autocratic and controlling.
“My job is to serve the teachers … from a leadership point of view and not a boss point of view,” said Stephanie Andrewlevich of Mitchell Elementary School in the Southwest. “I am the champion for the teacher, so the teacher can be the champion for the child.”
Joshua Levinson of Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School in Andorra said, “I don’t ask my teachers to do anything I wouldn’t do.”
For the most part, the principals and Hite chose to highlight what they are achieving with the resources they have, rather than make a plea for more funding. Pennsylvania has the largest gaps in per-pupil spending between wealthy and low-income districts in the nation, and a fair funding lawsuit is seeking to change that.
Middle Years Alternative principal Shakae Dupre cited all the partnerships she has developed with organizations in her neighborhood.
“A lot of time, the exposure is what opens up communities who might not necessarily have those opportunities,” she said. “Could we use more resources financially? Absolutely, but until we get what we need 100 percent, we’re utilizing and capitalizing on what we have right now.”
The briefing with the principals took place in Hartranft’s sunny and well-stocked library, which has been refurbished and upgraded. It is staffed by volunteers from the Historic Fairhill Society. Libraries staffed by trained librarians have been a casualty of the District’s austere budget.
In a later interview, Lytle went down a wish list. With more funds, he said, “we could impact early literacy at the root” by reducing class size – now at 27 students per class – in the earliest grades. Nearly half of the school’s K-2 students read on grade level, according to the school’s progress report, but that number dips among 3rd graders, before rebounding later.
“And we always need improvements to the building,” Lytle said, adding that just about every heating and air conditioning vent is broken and ceiling tiles need replacing. He would also like more filtered water fountains.
“We use the resources that we have, but at the end of the day, it’s simply the love and the dedication we have for our students,” Lytle said.
Said Hite: “We recognize we could do a lot more with additional resources. We’ll always advocate for more funding, but there are schools making progress now. That’s what this is about.”