“We’re the city’s best kept secret,” said Excel Academy South’s executive director, Milton Alexander. Indeed, tucked away on the Friends Hospital campus, this alternative school is easy to miss.
But for the 335 students who are part of its inaugural year, the school is giving them a second chance at high school graduation.
Excel’s students, most over 16, were identified by high school counselors as at risk for dropping out. At Excel, an accelerated high school, they can earn up to 10 credits a year, two more than would be possible at a traditional high school.
The school’s approach, based on balanced and restorative practices, is to cut down on distractions, actively involve students in school governance, and prioritize building positive relationships.
“We study a lot of what went wrong in schools and develop systems to eliminate those distractions,” said Alexander.
He has five years experience with Camelot, the company that runs Excel South and its sister school, Excel Academy North. Camelot also operates two discipline schools.
One source of stress Excel seeks to eliminate is hallway interactions. Students walk in lines and follow “protocol,” keeping their hands clasped behind their backs, and student “team leaders” with walkie-talkies oversee transitions between classes.
While the environment is tightly controlled, students rise in status as they complete a “pledge book” that demonstrates to faculty that they know and follow the school norms. They first become “Eagles” and then “Executives.” Eagles and Executives act as role models and actively “confront” their peers’ negative behavior. They also participate in student government, where they are invited to make proposals about school policy.
Alexander expects his teachers to build rapport with the students. “If you have a relationship with a student, that helps you de-escalate conflict,” he said.
The schedule builds in time for developing community. Students are divided into “town houses,” which have “town meetings” at the beginning and end of each day. These include announcements and give students the chance to celebrate successes and give each other feedback.
There is also a daily advisory period called Guided Group Interaction, run on the principles of group therapy.
The staff walks students to the bus stop each afternoon and contacts them by cell phone if they are absent.
Senior Sarae White, 18, floundered at Lincoln. Her father brought her to her first day of school at Excel, exasperated and desperate.
“I came here and I went from straight Fs to straight As,” she said. “It’s great how proud my Dad is of me now. It’s good to have him on my side.”
Students attribute their turnarounds to the staff. “If they see one little pout on my face, it’s like, ‘Oh, are you ok?’” White said. “It’s a very caring environment.”
Brandon Ausborne, 18, a senior, said that at his old high school, “Some of the staff cared. But at this school, everyone cares.” He notes with satisfaction that students can’t do anything without faculty noticing.
Ausborne said that, at first, he had doubts: “At first I thought it was going to be strict – protocols and lines. I thought, ‘What are you talking about – we’re high school kids.’”
But then he said, “Mr. A. [Anderson] explained why you are in lines, why we have protocol.” Ausborne has become a school leader and is generally flourishing.
Academic coordinator Stephanie Bucca said the school seeks to prepare students to be “problem-solvers and lifelong learners.” Following the instructional model used by Jobs for the Future, faculty focus on six instructional strategies: collaborative group work, classroom talk, writing to learn, scaffolding, questioning, and literary groups.
The faculty is 95 percent new teachers, including Teach for America corps members.
Bucca said that first-year teachers adapt easily to the instructional strategies. She acknowledged that a lot is expected of the staff. Teachers have a short meeting at the end of every day and participate in a common planning period before school on Wednesdays.
The hallways are lined with student work – still-life drawings, math problems with descriptions of the problem-solving steps, collage diagrams of the parts of a plant cell. In one hallway are paintings labeled with German vocabulary words; in another, there are graphs correlating the gross domestic product and energy consumption of different countries.
Classes are 80 minutes long. On one recent morning, students in a personal finance class worked on furnishing a house, calculating the area of each room and picking out different floor types among samples from Home Depot. In environmental science, they collected information about Pennsylvania’s six endangered species. In art, they began a project to make landscape collages. In civics, groups read textbooks about Federalists and anti-Federalists. In English, they discussed a short story about a young woman newly arrived in America from China.
While preparation for the state standardized test, the PSSA, is woven into all the classes, there is also an elective that focuses on the test itself.
The school staff insists that all the students develop a post-secondary plan, either a job or continuing in an educational program. This can be difficult with a student population that comes to Excel South laden with academic failure, personal issues and, often, low reading and math skills.
Still, said student and aspiring artist Kelvin Castrow, 17, “They try to find what you’re good at and help you get better.”