One Bright Ray, an accelerated-school provider known for structure and strict discipline, has been adopting some practices influenced by other providers over the last several years: a project-based learning curriculum and a more lenient student discipline system.
But the calm and cheerful mornings at One Bright Ray make it clear that the school still defines itself by a highly structured environment.
Every morning, students entering the school’s Simpson campus greet the friendly attendance officer before walking through a metal detector and being searched by the security guard. The dean of discipline checks to make sure they are in uniform. Students then walk back to the attendance officer to sign in and surrender their cell phones, which they get back when they leave each afternoon.
Simpson is one of One Bright Ray’s three accelerated high school campuses in Philadelphia. Since the Simpson campus opened in 2012, a lot has changed about the student sign-in process.
Four years ago, the school’s principal, Derik Hrubosky, agreed to refine the school’s discipline practices and adopt an approach that incorporated some aspects of restorative practices — although Hrubosky was against the idea at first.
Before the changes, staff and students didn’t interact with the basic “good morning, how are you doing?” kind of greetings that they use today. And the staff had much stricter requirements for letting students into the building.
“All the kids need to wear an ID, but now I’m not going to send them home for not having an ID when they walk in,” Hrubosky said. “That’s kind of where we went wrong before.”
Hrubosky, who taught math for seven years before becoming principal, said the daily greetings between students and staff contain a lot of information. “Before, we didn’t even get to know if that kid was mad that morning or not.”
He acknowledged that coming to school and getting searched is “not very welcoming,” but he thinks the morning atmosphere can be changed by how students are treated during the process.
The school has moved away from its former zero tolerance policy, to a three-strikes policy that gives students second chances. The first strike is a warning, the second is a conference in the hallway with their teacher in which the teacher outlines the punishment the student will receive if the infraction happens again.
Graduation rates at the One Bright Ray campuses vary. The Simpson campus technically had a zero percent graduation rate last school year, but it only had three students eligible to graduate. The Elmwood campus had a 50 percent graduation rate, and the Fairhill campus had an 82 percent rate.
YESPhilly started as a GED program, but in 2012 it opened an accelerated high school. It’s become one of the more innovative, and unorthodox, of the city’s many accelerated programs, second only to El Centro. The newest of the accelerated schools, it had a 76 percent graduation rate in 2015-16.
Taking a different approach than some of the stricter options like Camelot or One Bright Ray, YESPhilly is all about student freedom.
The day starts late, at 9 a.m., but most students arrive earlier. Teachers are required to be there by 8:30 and spend a half-hour before class with their doors open so their students can meet with them about any issues they’re having in class.
Students have three consecutive hour-long classes in the morning, then a 40-minute lunch break. They are allowed to leave the building to get food so long as they aren’t late getting back for their two afternoon classes.
Like students at El Centro, they also keep and use their cell phones throughout the day — a privilege not afforded to students at Camelot or One Bright Ray.
Taylor Frome, the school’s founder and executive director, said it’s important to teach students how to behave like adults, which means giving them adult responsibilities like resisting the urge to use their cell phone to chat with friends while in class or at work.
“We’re really focused on this transition between being a child and being an adult,” Frome said. “Being able to step out of the building at lunch time is another place where we take the hard way, because we think it’s important that students learn to have the responsibility to leave and come back without being late.”
Frome said that the school’s model works well for most students. Some of her students would “walk out” of one of the more structured schools, she said.
“We get a segment of the population that’s a little more defiant to begin with, but that also thrives in this environment with more diverse academic activities,” Frome said.
However, Frome said, there is a need for those other models.
“Sometimes we’ll make an arrangement for somebody to transfer to One Bright Ray or Camelot, and that’s when we really can’t handle them and think they might do better in an environment where there’s less opportunity to get into conflicts,” Frome said. “For some students, that structure can be helpful.”
Greg Windle is a freelance writer for the Notebook.