Last year New Media Technology Charter School made headlines for federal investigations, possible financial scandals and a total school restructuring; this year it’s all about getting back on track.
“We’re going to make AYP, I can tell you that,” Education Director Robert Best told the school’s new CEO and board of trustees last week.
After the 2009-2010 school year, which saw the Cedarbook and Germantown-based school come as close to losing it’s state charter as any school is likely to get, the new board of trustees and top administrative staff are working together for the first time on a school turnaround model that is perhaps unique in Philadelphia.
Recovering from scandal
New Media had for years maintained good academic measures, meeting state Annual Yearly Progress standards and helping more than 95% of its graduating seniors gain post secondary acceptance, when the school district got wind of alleged financial improprieties in 2009 relating to the school’s top administration and board members.
School district officials worried that New Media founder and board president, Hugh Clark, might be mixing public funds with the Germantown based private school, Lotus Academy, which he also founded and ran, and with three Mt. Airy businesses he maintained with then New Media CEO Ina Walker.
But because of the solid academic showing at New Media, the School Reform Commission kept the charter alive with a summer 2009 order, subject to 20 conditions – more than any other charter school had yet faced – the gist of which was to totally sever ties with Clark and Walker and institute a completely new board and school administration.
Let the light shine in
The mandates took a year to complete, but when the school opened this fall Best and new CEO Donnamarie Parker were fresh on the scene as they got to know a totally new school board of trustees.
Already there were improvements in transparency. While previous board meetings were held in a small basement room of the school, sometimes conducting business without a clear quorum present, the current leadership holds meetings in the open in the school’s auditorium with chairs arranged for guests.
“We’ve had a very successful start given some bumps and some bruises, and we’re still going forward,” said Best of the efforts at openness.
Best and Parker attribute that success to a hard working board, an open-minded staff and an engaged student body.
“I have heard from a lot of [students] that this has been one of the best years,” Best said. “The best administrative staff we’ve had here yet because you smile and you say hi to us and you actually listen.”
Academics suffered during the 2009-2010 transition year. In most measures, state test scores slipped and the school failed to make it’s last Annual Yearly Progress goals.
Picking up the pieces, and the scores
So, in addition to transparency, the school is also re-focussing on academics. Most of the new strategies are centered on better connecting students and parents with staff and school life.
“We’re all working together so that they feel they have a part in making the school better,” said Parker.
To better connect parents to teachers, the school has compiled a list of parent email addresses. That way, teachers can reach parents directly instead of relying on students to deliver a message, said Parker.
“If you ask your child how his day was he’ll usually just say fine and it doesn’t go any further than that,” she said.
Along the same lines, students swipe an I.D. card that lets everyone know who is in the building. The same system will automatically alert parents through an automated call if their child is late.
In the future, Parker said she’d like to use automated messages to make parents aware of upcoming meetings and events.
Similar avenues for communication are woven into a web-based, self-paced curriculum all 12th graders started this year through the Penn Foster Career School.
Instead of taking daily classes with New Media faculty, students select their courses from an online catalogue and largely move through assignments and tests on their own. The courses, meant to mimic a freshman year at college, are virtually led by Penn Foster teachers.
There is an on-site project manager at New Media to help facilitate the program and students are still required to complete a senior project.
Parker and Best said the program better prepares students for college. In particular, they said the unorthodox learning environment teaches the self-discipline necessary for post-secondary success.
That skill, said Parker, is particularly important for students transitioning from a small school with less than 500 students, like New Media.
“What we’re finding is that when they go out to the big universities, they lose a semester or a year because they’re lost,” said Parker.
Lost, explained Best, because many students aren’t used to being outside of the intimate learning environment at New Media.
“They’re developing the discipline of staying on task,” said Best
Making new connections, day by day
To help ensure students enrolled in the program are learning that critical skill, parents can get a glimpse of what their student is working on by receiving every email their child is sent within the courses.
The school has also been offering Saturday tutoring sessions to help improve those PSSA scores. But this is not easy since the Saturday sessions cannot be mandated by the school. Last week, board president Wanda Bailey Green asked the administration what could be done to get the students who scored low on the recent state tests to those Saturday sessions, instead of just the students who are already high performers.
“Can we let the parents know that it’s almost a mandatory thing?” Green asked.
Most in the new school leadership team will admit it’s been an uphill battle to recover from a year of turmoil, but Best said the school will continue to improve.
“It’s a day to day thing,” he said. “As we work together and keep the lines of communication open we are learning more and more about one another as a team and as a family… We’re moving forward.”
Patrick Cobbs provided some reporting assistance for this story.