Excel Academy offers students in the Northeast a second chance

Jamirca Delacruz dropped out of Frankford High School. Sarae White was struggling academically. Brandon Ausborne was simply not attending a high school at all.

All three chose to attend the newest Camelot School, Excel Academy South, which opened this year on the grounds of Friends Hospital at Roosevelt Boulevard and Adams Avenue.

“I didn’t want to stay home and not graduate and be a failure,” Ausborne said.

Todd Bock, the senior vice president for education services for Camelot, said the idea for Excel South developed out of a good working relationship with Friends Hospital and the School District of Philadelphia

Bock said the School District held a competitive bidding process through its Multiple Pathways to Graduation program. The Multiple Pathways program, in conjunction with a Johns Hopkins program called Project U-Turn, tries to offer high school students a variety of options for graduation, including accelerated schools. Camelot, a private company that oversees some of these accelerated school programs, had already opened its Excel Academy North campus at 6600 Bustleton Ave. Bock said he believes that Camelot was awarded the second site because of its success at the North campus.

After the School District made its choice and responded positively toward Camelot’s proposal, Bock said officials dictated to him and the Camelot staff that the newest Excel Academy would be located in the Northeast, just like the North Campus.

Bock and his staff searched for a location in the Northeast and settled on the Friends Hospital property, located on the outskirts of Northwood.

“We knew the property was available, and we wanted to invest our money in a facility for the long term,” Bock said. “Friends Hospital has been incredibly accommodating and welcoming, and I think the kids appreciate and enjoy the setting. It’s like a little oasis in the big city. It doesn’t feel like you’re in Philadelphia. So far, we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response, and from what I’ve heard from the community, we’ve been a good neighbor.”

Excel Academy South is currently operating at 100 percent capacity, which, Bock said, “speaks to its success.”

Milton Alexander. Photo by Maria Konidaris.
(Milton Alexander. Photo by Maria Konidaris.)

Three hundred thirty-five students are currently enrolled at the Excel Academy South campus. An additional 200 to 300 students have put their names on a waiting list should spots open up for them.

Camelot and the Excel Academy interview potentially eligible students, as well as their parents, during an orientation. Students must meet certain criteria in order to even be considered for inclusion in the accelerated high school.

“They must be at least 16 years old and must be under-credentialed in terms of their ninth-grade credit average,” Bock said. “Essentially, but for intervention, these students would drop out of high school.

“But, we are a school of choice,” Bock added. “Students are not told to come here. They may be pointed in our direction and come into our office, where we can determine if they are eligible and set up the orientation.”

Bock said it is possible for a ninth-grade student to enter a Camelot school like Excel Academy with no credits and graduate within two-and-a-half years.

Students can earn 10 credits in a school year as opposed to the traditional six credits, thanks in part to a longer school day that lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. By extending the school day, students at an Excel Academy can earn five credits their first semester and five more credits their second semester. Then, if they want to, they can enroll in an optional summer-school program to earn an additional credit or two during the summer.

Excel Academy students must meet the same School District and state-mandated graduation requirements in the same core subject areas – English, mathematics, science and social studies – as their peers in neighboring high schools – George Washington High School, Abraham Lincoln High School, Frankford High School, Northeast High School and Samuel Fels High School, all of which have students who make their way to Excel. That means that students must earn 23.5 credits to graduate. [Click here for a Flash map showing the proximity of these schools.]

Dawn Reed-Seeger, a head counselor at Washington, said she could not talk about the students who left her school for Excel Academy South. Dr. Eileen Coutts, the principal at Samuel Fels, said she did not have enough information or feedback from students to comment. E-mails and phone calls were not returned by the remaining schools, nor were they returned by School District officials.

Bock said the students have little flexibility in scheduling and may only be able to select two to three elective classes during their time at the Academy.

“We offer pretty much the same curriculum as in public schools,” said Milton Alexander, the executive director of Excel Academy South. “Our distinct difference in our program is we state the importance of building rapport and student relationships. We have a very large student-government population that has gone above and beyond in its academics. They have great behavior, built great relationships with each other, but not only with each other, but with the faculty as well.”

Outside the Excel Academy South in Nothwood, Northeast Philadelphia, Executive Director Milton Alexander stands with student Nick Rhoades.  Photo by Maria Konidaris.
(Outside the Excel Academy South in Nothwood, Northeast Philadelphia, Executive Director Milton Alexander stands with student Nick Rhoades.  Photo by Maria Konidaris.)

The formula has proven successful for the Excel Academy North. Bock said 90 percent of its students have graduated from high school, and many go onto post-secondary placements in the military, vocational schools, community colleges and two-to-four-year colleges and universities.

Delacruz said she expects to graduate with straight A’s with “a good record, so I can show colleges and be successful.”

White, who said she decided to come to Excel Academy South to “get a second chance and to go far in life,” should graduate as an honor-roll student.

“Seeing students come in with no hope and leave with a high school diploma … it’s a great feeling,” Alexander said.

On top of that, the entire operation is 100 percent funded by the School District, so the students and their families do not need to pay tuition.

At this time, Bock and the rest of Camelot have not held any conversations with the School District about opening additional Excel Academies, either in the Northeast or in other sections of the city.

“We work for the School District, so we take direction from them,” Bock said. “If we continue to produce the kinds of results that we have to this point and continue to affect change by helping kids receive diplomas, I would hope they would think about investing in more seats at Excel Academies if it is within their budget.”

“This being a first-year school, it’s not perfect,” chemistry teacher Geoff Kosak said. “We all know that, and I think … in year two, year three, it will be even better. So once that gets settled, I’d recommend this school to anyone.”

Maria Konidaris and Jennifer Reardon are Temple University journalism students working with Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a class devoted to covering under-reported areas of Philadelphia.

*Article and map by  Jennifer Reardon, photos and video by Maria Konidaris.

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