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Breakfast at Meade - Inside a Renaissance Alert School

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Dennis Barnebey, education specialist at Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), asked me if I want to join him in going to look at the breakfast program at the Meade Elementary School at 18th and Oxford in North Philly. The school has been doing breakfast in the classroom for a while now, and Dennis thought it might make a good blog post.

Part of what made may say yes this week was that Meade showed up on the recently announced Renaissance Alert list, a circle up from the dreaded Renaissance Eligible list. Besides breakfast, I wanted to see what a school on the list looked like.

We visited a dozen classrooms on all three floors of the K-8 schools. Principal Frank Murphy showed us around and then had to deal with a maintenance issue. He encouraged us to look around and talk to students and staff, and so we did, staying well beyond breakfast. In fact, lunch was beginning by the time we left. 

Meade’s breakfast program is not just about making sure kids get something to eat to start their school day. According to Murphy, it's about building the right kind of school climate and culture.

“The older students come and help supervise the younger children and organize the cleanup,” he said. They also see that everything is properly sorted and recycled.

In all the classrooms, breakfast was orderly as students sat at their desks or tables, quietly talking or, in some cases, reading or completing an assignment.

Teachers all expressed support for the program. “It has really helped build a sense of community in my classroom,” one teacher said.  The transition from breakfast to instruction was generally seamless.

But Meade is not just doing breakfast well. Evidence of a positive and nurturing school climate is everywhere.

The halls are warm and inviting - filled with end tables, lamps, rocking chairs, fish tanks, lots of plants, and interesting student work. A "wall of respect" is being constructed, featuring ceramic masks of historical notables like the school’s namesake, General George Meade, the hero of Gettysburg, and will eventually feature masks made by every student in the school.

We visited the mask “factory” where artist Leroy Johnson and a cohort of three other artists from the Clay Studio work along with students and their teachers in creating the masks and mounting them. “This is about conflict resolution and building cooperation,” Johnson explained. He and his team worked first with the older children to develop both their social skills and their understanding of the medium so that they could the help the younger children.

We observed 6th graders seriously engaged in helping the 1st graders. The room was a beehive of activity, with a large group of students, teachers, and the visiting artists. Virtually everyone was working. Students talked to us about their masks. One 1st grader’s mask looked more like a meteorite than a face. “It’s modern art,” he explained.

We also visited several math and reading classes, all of which were characterized by skillful teaching and students on task. The standardized curriculum was very much in evidence.

A 4th grade music class blew me away. As we entered, the teacher was humming a sequence of notes, while on the floor were a series of laminated green circles labeled alternately tonic and dominant. Students had to jump on the one corresponding to the note. Volunteers hop-scotched on the circles, getting applause for successful efforts. Then came a lesson on meter in which the teacher used chanting, drumming, and musical notation to differentiate patterns. Pretty sophisticated stuff. Students not only enjoyed the lesson, but demonstrated remarkable mastery.

There were important things I didn’t see, but heard about:

  • An eighth-period elective program for the upper grades that included working with Young Playwrights, participating in a jazz ensemble, or working out in the well-equipped exercise room – a school response to after-lunch disengagement, a big problem with middle-school-aged students.
  • A seventh period for small-group instruction in which a ten-to-one student-teacher ratio is achieved. 
  • A school-designed afterschool program focused on guided reading.

I’m sorry, but this is not a failing school.

They are doing schooling right – targeted professional development, differentiated instruction…all the things that schools are supposed to be doing. The staff is energetic and skilled with seasoned leadership   

So how do does Meade end up on the Alert list?

The school recently made AYP in successive years and so it is not a school where restructuring is mandated under No Child Left Behind.  Last year it narrowly missed it, meeting 12 of 13 targets, and putting it in "Warning" status. Fifth-grade scores dropped. In small elementary schools where some grades have only one class, this is not unusual – a veteran teacher goes out on maternity leave or illness, someone who turns out to be subpar comes in on special assignment, and down go the scores. A problem, sure, but not the basis for making a sober judgment about school progress.

Meade may well escape the Renaissance treatment but as a result of being on the Alert list it is now an Empowerment School. That means Corrective Reading and Math and the Empowerment version of an after school program. It means say good bye to much of what the school on its own has designed and implemented. From talking to teachers it is clear that morale is taking a big hit

Maybe we all need to take a closer look at the District’s performance index if this is the result. Or maybe, while data shouldn’t be ignored, we need to use some common sense, too.

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