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Parallel worlds: Two schools a short journey apart

At Lower Merion, students have steady support. That's hard to sustain at Overbrook.
  • fall 2010 cover photo
    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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The two schools are less than four miles apart. But what separates Lower Merion High from Overbrook High is more than distance.

On a balmy night in early September, the parents of new freshmen are streaming through Lower Merion’s gleaming glass doors. They file down the halls into a soaring auditorium that smells like a new car. There, Principal Sean Hughes welcomes them to a brand new building and a world of high expectations.

“There’s a pool, there’s a greenhouse, there’s a courtyard. All of the classrooms are state-of-the-art, with the kind of technology you’d expect to find at a university,” he said. Lower Merion is the region’s highest-spending district, and it shows. But tonight, Hughes and his staff spend almost no time talking about their impressive new facility.

Instead, they talk about people. For a full hour, they lay out the web of support that helps keep the school’s graduation rates near 100 percent, with eight out of ten graduates going to four-year colleges.

They describe supervised study halls, teachers’ office hours, and a battery of counselors and services. They introduce online report cards and assignment guides. They promise every child a personal counselor, scheduled guidance meetings, and a laptop computer to access the school’s digital network.

In the audience is Juanita Kerber, a new resident whose daughter just finished four happy years at a Philadelphia public school, Greenfield Elementary. Her qualms about the transition didn’t last long. “I met with her guidance counselor last week,” Kerber said. “And she said to Jasmine, ‘With your grades, have you ever considered honors classes?’ Instantly, I felt that the support was here to make you better than what you are.”

Also here are Sharon and Jerry Jacobs, who are sending their second child to Lower Merion. “The school won’t let the kids fall through the cracks,” said Sharon. “They’ve got the resources, and the expectation is for them to live up to their abilities.”

 “Nobody likes paying taxes,” he said. But the school’s high quality draws people, and “the property values more than compensate for the investments.”

In nearby Ardmore, Alicia Goff lives with her father in a modest twin on a quiet street. The Lower Merion senior is happy in school and excited about her prospects. But she says her story could have been much different if the district hadn’t intervened in middle school, when her reading problems emerged. Her teachers steered her into a special class. “I hated it,” she said. “But it worked. I’m really grateful for that.”

Once in high school, focused attention and a carefully constructed curriculum got her past her academic problems. “They do consistency,” said her father, Roger. “And they can afford to sustain it, where other schools would just let it fall apart.”

Alicia knows she’s fortunate. “I have friends in the Philly system,” she said. “My friend was telling me about the cafeteria in her school. A bunch of the stools were broken, and there was nowhere to sit. The school would say, ‘We had to spend the money on textbooks.’

  • 18 markeeta hudgens3

 “It’s a whole different world,” said Alicia – just a few minutes away.

Markeeta Hudgens agrees. “Lower Merion is not far from Overbrook High School – not far at all,” she said. “How can you be not even 10 minutes away from another school, and have so much less?”

Hudgens, who graduated from Overbrook last June, is asking a profound question.

Wealthy, White suburban school districts abut poor ones serving students of color all over the country, and it’s common to see stark differences in their property values and their ability to raise taxes to pay for schools.

Years of government policies at all levels played a role in those divides, though they sometimes seem like part of the natural order. But many young people, like Hudgens, see the unfairness in it.

Now, a few days after Labor Day, she’s sitting in a lounge at Cheyney University. College was a priority she set for herself. “I know it sounds crazy, but in many people’s lives, we don’t have people pushing us,” she said. “Even our parents.”

Hudgens credits Overbrook with providing just enough. Honors classes honed her writing skills. Hard-working teachers gave her respect and support. Advisors in the Student Success Center – a room with a handful of computers and a small staff, funded by a federal grant, open to students on their lunch breaks – guided her through college applications. “It would have been hard, doing it alone,” she said. “It would have got done, but maybe not in this way.”

But she also feels keenly that at a school with a 47 percent graduation rate, she’s the exception, not the rule.

“Kids get scared. They don’t know if they can make it,” she said. “With their fear, they pull out.”

Looking back, she feels that Overbrook simply didn’t have the resources to reel those students in. She’s seen the state costing-out study. Lower Merion spends almost $26,000 per student each year, against Philadelphia’s less than $13,000. To her, that explained her sense that the school never quite had enough of anything.

“You couldn’t take the textbooks home. They were all outdated,” she said. “They have basketball, football – but most of the [equipment] was handed down, out of date. There was a dance squad trying to form, but there was no funding for that. A band, no funding for that. It’s not like being an underdog – it’s like not even being in the competition at all.”

At Cheyney, she already feels like she’s playing catch-up. “I don’t feel like I’m prepared like I should be,” she said, “Other kids are more advanced. They have more knowledge.”

She says she won’t give up. But she can’t say the same of most Overbrook students. “We’re not trained to push,” she said. “We’re trained to let it flow. That’s the culture. People become numb. You don’t react.”

On a bright sunny day in mid-September, Overbrook’s principal is standing at a lectern in the library, saying the school can’t solve that problem alone.

“I’ve got a group of kids that’s going to go to college. Their parents have already sown that seed,” said Ethelyn Young. “But I got a mass of kids who, nobody told them that was a possibility. You got to reach out to the masses.”

The only solution is partnerships, she says, and that’s why she’s happy today. Mayor Michael Nutter, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and the head of Millersville University have arrived to announce an expansion of the Student Success Center. It’s gone from half a dozen computers to 30. It’s added extra staff and support.

Earlier in the day, Young announced the partnership to a cheering auditorium full of juniors and seniors. When one guest asked the students how many planned to go to college, almost every hand shot up.

But later, Young explains the reality. Of a typical freshman class of 380, she says, only about 100 will go on to college. “And you want to know how many actually graduate? That’s a different story,” she said.

Young is nothing if not optimistic. She arrived seven years ago to a school in disarray. Things have slowly improved, she says. Teachers work yeoman’s hours to provide extracurricular support. The number of AP classes has gone from two to five. The school now owns nine “laptop carts,” each with about 30 computers. A wide range of partners contribute after school programming, special classes for returning students, career training, and more.

The single biggest factor behind many of these recent improvements is a three-year, $6 million grant from the federal Department of Labor – a grant for which only “persistently dangerous” schools were eligible. That funds the laptops, extra teachers and staff, many programs, and perhaps most importantly, the Student Success Center.

The problem, says Young, is that after next year, the money runs out.

In Lower Merion, district superintendent Chris McGinley says hard times mean leaner budgets. “Lower Merion is not immune to the broader economy,” he said. But the vast majority of support systems at Lower Merion High are built into the very fabric of its budget. A family like the Goffs can count on them not just for a year or two, but for an educational lifetime.

At Overbrook, it’s the opposite story. “There’s no longevity to anything,” said Young. “We’re just now getting [the Success Center] up and running. We have this year, and all of next year. Then I think that’s it.

“I’ll keep the computers. But who’s going to staff it? I don’t have the staff,” she said. “I’ve got to figure out how to sustain these things. Because the kids keep coming.”


Overbrook
       vs Lower Merion
1,595 Student enrollment 1,542
98% % African American 10%
1% % White 82%
0% % Asian 6%
1% % Latino 2%
83% % Low Income 7%
47% Graduation rate 98%
22%

Average daily abseenteeism

6%
16% PSSA Math -
% proficient
84%
25% PSSA Reading - % proficient 92%

Sources: Pa. Dept. of Education, School District of Philadelphia

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