Two Philly schools tapped for turnaround offer study in contrasts

A handful of community members take seats in the Benjamin Franklin High School auditorium to learn about turnaround plans for the school. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

A handful of community members take seats in the Benjamin Franklin High School auditorium to learn about turnaround plans for the school. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Eleven Philadelphia schools are due for a major overhaul, and the district has hired a consultant to visit each school and hear from local community members about how those overhauls should look.

But if early meetings are any indication, just because schools look the same based on test scores and other dry data doesn’t mean they have similar levels of engagement.

No two schools better exemplify that contrast than Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School, which held gatherings just a few hours apart on Tuesday evening.

At Kensington, a crowd of more than 150 people packed the small cafeteria and forcefully questioned how outsiders parachuting in for a two-day study could possibly evaluate or understand the value of their school. 

At Ben Franklin, 10 people huddled at the front of a massive auditorium.

Kensington school community ‘on a mission’

From the principal to parents to teachers to the security officer, community members in Kensington stood up for the intangibles that, they said, make Kensington Health Sciences a port in the storm for young people in a battered neighborhood. What they need are more help and resources, not an overhaul, they said.

“This is no institution,” said Ed Green, the dean of students who has been at the school since its inception eight years ago, and in one or another Kensington high school for 19 years. “This is Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and we are family. I want to see you evaluate how you see kids here loved and taken care of.”

What happens at Kensington Health Sciences, he said, “needs to be duplicated, replicated, not torn down. You can’t put numbers on the love and care we give our kids.”

George Roesser, a retired district principal who is the acting superintendent for the network that includes Kensington Health Sciences, kept repeating that the school was designated for turnaround based on the School Progress Report, which evaluates schools on a scale of 1 to 100.

The index is based largely on academic factors including test scores and graduation rates, as well as climate indicators such as the use of in-school and out-of-school suspension.

Earlier this month, Superintendent William Hite designated 11 schools with a three-year average district performance score under 15 for some kind of overhaul. Kensington Health Sciences’ score was 13.3.

The schools will not be closed or converted to a charter, but could see major staff changes.

The chart showing the school’s trend was projected on a screen Tuesday, but speaker after speaker dismissed it as mere numbers.

The district hired the firm Cambridge Education to conduct an evaluation and report back on each school, after which Hite will choose how to intervene. Cambridge representative Chris Finn tried to explain to the crowd what his firm would be doing. 

“We’re an objective company coming in to do this evaluation,” said Finn, a former principal and administrator in several large urban districts, including New York. He explained it is a two-day process that includes classroom visits, interviews, and separate focus groups of teachers, students, and parents.

But Finn was quickly compelled to cede the microphone as people clamored to talk. 

“If you are here two days you will see who we are and what we are doing,” Green said. “We are all here to make a difference in the lives of every kid and in the community. We eat, sleep and breathe Kensington Health Sciences Academy. We are on a mission, sir.”

Array of turnaround options

The district has created a menu of five turnaround options for schools including Kensington Health Sciences. One leaves the door open for schools to craft their own plans. The other options include engaging a contract partner to run programs or manage the school; “restarting,” which means phasing in a new program grade by grade; or merging with a “high-quality provider,” presumably a better-performing school, although this isn’t clear. 

The fourth option is initiating an “evidence-based” plan for academic improvement, which would apparently be done with existing staff. The last option is entering the district’s Turnaround Network, which would bring a staff shakeup. At schools in that network, originally called Promise Academies, all staff had to reapply for their jobs and only half could be kept on. 

Kensington Health Sciences, which has a Career and Technical Education focus on health technologies, is more than half Latino and about a third African-American. More than 80 percent of the 450 or so students live below the poverty line; 28 percent are in special education; and 18 percent are English language learners.

At the meeting, Principal James Williams, who is perpetually smiling and upbeat, vowed to use this scrutiny as an opportunity to showcase a special place. 

“We will use this process to introduce Kensington Health Sciences Academy to the rest of the world,” he said. “Wow, wow, I say that with a great deal of pride. My staff is the very best staff in the School District of Philadelphia. It is amazing, make no mistake about that.

“And my students, the ninth-graders, the 10th-graders, the juniors, my beloved seniors. Guys, anybody who spends time with us will know the truth, and that is going to impress them.” 

“You think an evaluation going to slow us down?” he said later.  ”You don’t know Mr. Williams at all then.”

Speakers decried how the district seems always to blame teachers and the principal for problems, when, they said, schools such as Kensington Health Sciences have been systematically deprived of resources.

One young math teacher rose to question low proficiency rates for algebra — they are in the single digits — noting that a class of students went without a certified instructor for two months last year due to the inability to find substitutes after a teacher left. This also affected the other teachers in the building who had to fill in.

Despite that, 60 percent more students scored as proficient in algebra than the year before, he said. (The district’s School Progress Report numbers used to evaluate the school were from 2014-15.)

‘I don’t want my kid to be just another number’

Teachers, families and students filled the tables and lined the back and sides of the room to show their loyalty. 

“My sister pushed and pushed to get to this school,” said Jada Gonzalez, a sophomore at Bodine High School. Her sister, Tatyana Gonzalez, is a ninth-grader.

“She’s got relationships with the principal and students and teachers, she’s very smart and she’s now in classes with 11th-graders,” Jada said. “I don’t see what the issue is with education and test scores when these teachers are helping our students get where they need to be.” 

Jada and Tatyana’s mother, Stephanie Rivera, said Tatyana turned down admission to more selective schools to attend Kensington Health Sciences. 

“When we came on tour here, she fell in love with the school and the environment,” Rivera said. “I am comfortable sending my child to a school where I know staff members are going to look out for my kid. It’s not just the education. It’s that they see a kid’s face and say, ‘How are you today?’ I don’t want my kid to be just another number.”

Hite had two representatives at the meeting. Donna Frisby-Greenwood, the head of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, is a member of his cabinet. Zachary Epps is on his staff as director of the Office of Advocacy and External Engagement.

Frisby-Greenwood said afterward of the turnout and the passion, “This was amazing.” 

“Clearly the climate is great here,” she said, but “we have to do something to support academics. This process will reveal what needs to be done” 

College center helps students continue education

Kensington Health Sciences has also been designated as a community school, an initiative of Mayor Jim Kenney’s Office of Education. It proposes forming partnerships and shoring up a school’s non-academic supports for students and families, making schools neighborhood hubs for everything from recreation to health services.

A question on why the school is part of both projects was not answered, but Williams told the crowd that “what we are doing with the community school model will be an example for other schools to follow.” 

Another who was puzzled by the turnaround designation was Raymond John, who zeroed in on Kensington Health Sciences when he founded an organization called 12Plus to help students in neighborhood high schools get on a path to college. 

The small nonprofit, started in 2012, operates in three schools, and Kensington Health Sciences was its first. 

“We work to create a college-going culture,” John said. “It is so important to do this in neighborhood schools.”

After the meeting, he eagerly showed off the college center 12Plus has created out of an unused classroom. The center serves as a library, a computer lab, and a place for students just to hang out and study. They also get help with applications and financial aid forms from three “fellows” who work in each school.

He said he has been tracking the progress of graduates the organization has worked with and that his numbers contrast sharply with what the district says is the case at Kensington Health Sciences. 

Last year, John said, 80 percent of the graduates pursued a postgraduate path, either a four-year or two-year college or a trade school. Of that 80 percent, 63 percent enrolled in the post-secondary program in the fall following graduation, which significantly increases their chances of finishing.

“The deep-rooted relationships here are not reflected” in the School Progress Report, John said, echoing what the speakers at said. “They take care of kids who have so many other factors in their lives, like jobs or being parents, and help them calibrate their lives.”

Meanwhile, at Benjamin Franklin …

The uproar at Kensington Health Sciences contrasted sharply with the mood at Benjamin Franklin High School, which had its own community meeting just a couple hours later on Tuesday evening.

At the tiny gathering there, newly appointed Principal Abdul-Mubdi Muhammad begged a trio of students who showed up to spread the word.

“We want to see a lot more parents here, a lot more community members here,” he said, his voice echoing off the wood-paneled walls.

Muhammad said if the school can convince the district it has initiatives worth saving and the backing of its community, the school could be spared significant disruption.

“But I need parents to champion it most,” he said. “If parents are out here for those focus groups then our fate is in our own hands. But if they’re not here, then there’s no voice.”

Muhammad admitted it’s tough to mobilize parents at large comprehensive high schools, which are often tasked with educating students who don’t have the resources or wherewithal to choose desirable magnet or charter schools.

Because it’s located just north of Center City and on the Broad Street subway line, Ben Franklin’s students come from all over Philadelphia. About 85 percent of the school’s students commute more than two miles, said Muhammad.

Ben Franklin’s district performance score has hovered between 5 and 10 percent over the last three years, well below the 15 percent cut-off point for schools in the turnaround initiative. During the 2014-15 school year, the last one for which performance scores were calculated, just 10.4 percent of students passed the algebra Keystone exam, 14.9 percent passed the literature exam, and 5.2 percent passed the biology exam.

The school has also been rocked by a series of scarring events over the past year. In June 2015, a fire forced the school to close for a day. A half year later, in January, a school fight resulted in a 16-year-old allegedly firing a gunshot. Shortly thereafter, in May, video surfaced of an altercation between a Ben Franklin student and a school police officer. Youth activists from the Philadelphia Student Union called for the dismissal of the police officer in the video and a “complete overhaul” of school policing training and tactics. 

Since taking over as principal earlier this year, Muhammad has launched a school Twitter account and attempted to organize a Home and School Association to promote parent involvement. He knows it won’t be easy, but he thinks the school has plenty worth preserving.

He points to the school’s deep roster of career and technical education programs. Last year, the district launched a state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing CTE program that includes courses in culinary arts, welding, drafting and design. The school also has an unusually high number of sports programs and a strong JROTC program, he said.

Muhammad has already been an administrator at two, large public high schools in Philadelphia: John Bartram in Southwest Philadelphia and Audenried in the Point Breeze Neighborhood. His time at Bartram began with promise, but ended abruptly after he was accused of shoving a student.

At Audenried, Muhammad was part of the administrative team that shepherded the school through its own turnaround process. In 2011, the school became a charter run by Universal Companies under the district’s Renaissance initiative.

That option isn’t on the table for Ben Franklin — or any of the other 10 schools slated for intervention this year. Nor will the district close any of the 11 schools.

The absence of those two drastic remedies gives Muhammad hope that he can keep Ben Franklin largely intact.

“It’s not a bleak thing,” he said. “We have options. We have options to move forward. But it’s really going to depend on the constituency groups coming forward and talking.”

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