Disruptive classroom behavior, truancy, a fight with a fellow student or a teacher; these offenses typically earn a student suspension or even expulsion from school.
One Philadelphia charter school has a different model, where trouble students receive extensive behavior support.
On a snowy winter morning, students are rushing down B Street in Philadelphia’s Kensington section, trying to make it into the old building on time. No such luck, they are late, and have to get passes from a stern lady sitting at a desk right at the entrance.
“Don’t wait around for your friends, go, go go, you are already late,” she admonishes the students.
The elevator is not working today, and it’s a long walk up to the fourth floor, home to the John B. Stetson Success Academy, a school within this middle school.
The fourth floor is quiet – very quiet. Students walk silently to their classroom, hands clasped behind their backs. The lack of noise is surprising, as this floor is home to the school’s biggest troublemakers.
“We get a lot of those really high status kids,” explains program director Bret Wade. “On the street, when nobody is looking, those are the kids that everybody is looking to for approval who are influencing their peers behind the scenes.”
John B. Stetson Success Academy takes troubled kids out of the regular classrooms, brings them upstairs, and aims to change their behaviors.
Upstairs students are divided into grades, and learn the same curriculum as the other kids in the school, but their day is punctuated with interventions targeting trouble behaviors.
Early in the morning, they gather for “Guided Group Intervention.” Students sit in a circle, they own up to things they have done wrong; being late, disrespectful, forgetting homework – and mention things they are proud of.
For Miss Cole’s 8th graders, it’s also a place to air grievances with other students. One student complains that another student always tries to impress a teacher in another class, but then curses and acts disrespectfully toward his peers.
Miss Cole asks the other student to respond, and the two adolescents engage in a brief discussion. Others chime in with potential solutions.
Bret Wade says, this simple daily practice encourages responsibility, and prevents violence. “It allows us to be proactive so when these two students cross paths in the cafeteria, they have already discussed the issue and they have already squashed it, so we’re not dealing with a fight that jumps off in the middle of nowhere.”
Students end up upstairs with the Success Academy after a serious offense, such as fighting, or after other behavior interventions have failed. They stay until their behavior improves – and go through a tiered process of earning the staff’s trust – and getting badges and privileges along the way.
Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Herrera doesn’t look much like a trouble maker – he’s soft-spoken and wears a dress shirt, tie and sweater. He says coming upstairs has been a life-changing experience for him.
“I was being disrespectful to the staff downstairs, I was being disrespectful with my peers, I wasn’t respecting nobody,” recalls Herrera. “But when I came up here, I saw the staff really caring, so I started to change my behavior.”
His 8th-grade classmate Natalie Rodriguez says her teachers and her mother noticed changes in her:
“My mom says it’s a good program for me, she’s seen how much my behavior has changed, I’m not as disrespectful no more, and the program did good for me, it changed my whole attitude, my whole life since I have been up here.”
The program leans heavily on personal responsibility – where students have to be accountable for their own actions, says Bret Wade. “What did you do? I don’t care what he did, I don’t care what she did, what did you do exactly to prevent this issue – and if they can’t come up with it, then we need to have a conversation.”
Eighth grade literacy teacher Beth Cole says some kids take what they have learned in the classroom back home, and become leaders there, too. But not always.
“Once they leave our building, they throw those things out, and I see them on Facebook, I check their feeds, they put some things up and I think I wish you would have continued parts of our program and you wouldn’t have this issue,” said Cole.
When the program started two years ago, some parents were concerned that it was too tough, or correctional in nature – but Wade says the program has shown results for the students upstairs, and for those who remain in the classrooms downstairs. “What it does is it removes a distraction from the classroom, and it also serves as a deterrent for those students that would normally be on the fence,” explained Wade. “You have a small population that would be willing to without peer support to disrespect a teacher, now with peer support, with somebody already disrespecting a teacher, you might have five or six more students willing to do it. “
Bret Wade says the program has another advantage – students who end up upstairs don’t have any negative notes on their records – no expulsion, no suspensions – so nothing to lessen their chances of getting into a good high school once they leave Stetson.