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Reflecting on the brighter side

by Katrina Morrison

This summer I am interning with the Notebook through the Samuel S. Fels Fund graduate internship program. I am researching school turnaround for the October edition of the Notebook and will be blogging periodically.

I grew up in Sharon Hill, PA, and currently reside in West Philadelphia. I taught 9-11th grade humanities for three years at Mastery Charter High School, Lenfest Campus. I am currently a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Two brief encounters recently led me to reflect on something that has been lost in the recent noise about catastrophe in the District’s leadership and budget: the good things happening in Philly schools.

First, a veteran middle school teacher urged me to seek out those good things. Not long afterward, I was reading at the 69th Street bus stop when a voice called my name.

When I looked up, I saw a 19-year-old man with the face of a 14-year-old I once taught. It indeed was Nadir, my former student as a freshman at Mastery Lenfest.

After we calmed from the astonishment of seeing each other, he told me that he had just finished his first year at Ursinus College. It was tough, he said, but also fun. He looked forward to his second year and to choosing a major. When the school year ended, he came back home to live with his mother. He’s looking for a summer job, but also for a book to read. I recommended a range of authors from Toni Morrison to Stephenie Meyer. I was pleased to hear that he had enjoyed reading Morrison, along with Ellison, Baldwin, and others, in his African-American literature class.

I was so happy to hear how well he had been doing, and smiled at the thought that as his 9th grade humanities teacher, I might have had something to do with his success.

I am no longer a high school teacher, but I am still involved in the movement to improve education experiences for young people. And like the veteran middle school teacher, I care about sharing positive stories to remind us that what we do–as students, parents, instructors, administrators, academics, advocates, and community members–makes a difference.

So, I’d like to remind you of a few things that you may have forgotten already during the tumultuous month of June. Thousands of seniors across the District celebrated graduations:

To all graduates, congratulations and good luck!

Also, in a city that in the past, has been criticized for high rates of obesity, it is nice to see two schools receive recognition for their health initiatives.

Of course, there are other stories that never make it into the media. An example would be the thousands of teachers who built strong, caring, supportive relationships with their students and help change their lives for the better.

I would love it if you would share some of your uplifting narratives here.

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Comments (3)

Submitted by garth (not verified) on July 8, 2011 11:14 am

I really agree with you about ignoring tons of positives outcomes from the Philly public schools. I'm a veteran parent of this school system, and I've felt for a long time that the focus is always on the worst schools and the worst students in the entire district. Currently, we have Ackerman and her obsession with the Promise Academies and the turnaround schools. A few years ago, it was Vallas building a whole new Aurenreid high school in hopes of improving things there. I think we should shift focus to the really good public schools in the city, and there's way more of them than most people realize. Just as an example, Masterman (5-12th grades) has about 1200 kids crammed into a building designed for 800, and does amazing things year after year. Maybe there should be an award each year for the school that makes the best use of limited space. Also couldn't the school district at least mention all the graduates from public schools headed to top-notch colleges? All the homeowners and property taxpayers without children or with kids in private school may feel better knowing that some of their tax dollars are making such a positive contribution. Why skip that type of positive outcome to focus on something like the dropout rate? A couple of months ago when half-day kindergarten was being contemplated, it made me think about all the great kindergarten teachers currently working in the PSD, and how little attention they get. I know the old saying about the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but I really do think we need a more positive focus.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 8, 2011 1:11 pm

Yes, you are right. There are some wonderful schools in Philadelphia. and there are many Great students in our schools. There are also many Great teachers, principals and assistant principals who do heroic work with their students. I was a high school guy so I am familiar with schools like CAPA, GAMP, Bodine, Central, Girls, Bok, etc.

I also spent 20 years at University City H.S. which was once a wondeerful place to work and had a staff that did wondeful things for our students. Uni was once a leader in the Small Learning Community movement, magnet programs, intensive scheduling and many innovative programs that worked for students.

I also had the good fortune to work at Furness for seven years as an assistant principal. That school community is awesome and does wonderful things in that school. When you walk in their door, you can just feel the positive climate.

There are many gems in Philly and they have been here for a long time.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on July 8, 2011 2:13 pm

It is unfair to compare schools. Schools like Masterman (Central, SLA, GAMP, etc.) have very strict admission requirements. They should do much better than a school with no admission requirements and which has to take anyone from the neighborhood. That said, there are good things going on in neighborhood schools other than the magnets. But, too many students receive a diploma from a neighborhood school not because they have acquired the skills, academic and life, to take care of themselves and others post high school. It is because administrators are rated on pass and graduation rates. We are told they must pass and administrators will pass students regardless of performance, attendance, etc. If a student has an IEP, they can pass based on their IEP (e.g. fail everything and barely attend but still pass).

So, yes there is a lot of good happening in Philly schools but there are many students with a diploma who have very weak academic and social skills. This has gotten worse since NCLB - now we are told to get them "PSSA ready" - which is not college / career ready - because that is how a school is evaluated. There are also are too many weak "Academy" programs in the SDP which are not preparing students either for a solid career nor college. It may be better to have stronger CTE (career / technical) programs which are actually lead to a sustainable career as well as authentic college preparatory programs. What too often happen now is students are fooled into thinking they are being prepared for college when they are not. Since so many "Academy" (http://www.academiesinc.org/Default.aspx) programs are limited and weak. There is a lot of fluff but little substance.

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