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At Boys' Latin Charter School, a lesson in watching Philadelphians

By by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner on May 1, 2013 02:24 PM
Photo: Emma Lee/NewsWorks

Students fill the halls between classes at Boys' Latin Charter High School.

Sixteen-year-old boys aren't typically thought of as quiet observers of the world around them.

But that's exactly what the students in Carly Ackerman's 10th-grade composition class at Boys' Latin Charter High School in West Philadelphia are learning to become.

"Ethnography is basically the observation of an area," said 16-year-old Marcus Smalls, a sophomore at Boys' Latin, during a recent presentation to his class. "You're observing people, how they act, and the tone of the area."

Despite the the School District's painful financial woes — which have also hit charter schools hard this year — teachers across the city are still finding innovative ways to help students learn.

Smalls, a slight young man with a wispy beard and quick smile, said that until recently, he only paid attention to his surroundings when something bad was about to happen. Despite living in West Philadelphia his whole life, Smalls says he'd never been to city landmarks like Reading Terminal Market.

That is, until Ackerman introduced her ethnography unit last month, sending her students out of the classroom and into the city.

"When I walked in [to Reading Terminal], like a huge wind of heat hit my face, because it's so much people in there," said Smalls. "It just went on and on and on with different places where you can eat. I almost felt like a kid in a candy store."

Ritzy Rittenhouse Square, the downtown malls at the Gallery and inside the Liberty Place skyscraper, and 30th Street Station were among the places Ackerman sent her students to conduct "ethnographic fieldwork." Her assignment for the boys? Check your preconceived notions at the door. Get over your discomfort at being in an unfamiliar place. Think of yourself as a real researcher, and learn to simply observe.

"I think here we really try to push this idea of having curiosity," said the 24-year-old Ackerman, a Teach for America alum now in her third year at Boys' Latin. "[The students] kind of used [the lesson] as an opportunity to look around, to dig deeper, to walk around by themselves. ...They ran with it and tried to really immerse themselves in the whole opportunity and become part of the surroundings.

Smalls filled up his black spiral notebook with field notes.

In Rittenhouse Square, he marveled at how people multi-tasked, walking their dogs while listening to music and checking their phones.

Inside the Gallery, he noted how many people behaved as if they were at home, brushing their hair or laughing too loudly.  And at the more upscale Liberty Place mall, Smalls focused his attention exactly where you might expect.

"I knew the second I walked in there, it was a place for women," he said, "because I noticed the store Victoria's Secret."

More than just watching

The observations were just the beginning. Back at Boys' Latin, Ackerman had her students reading articles on human behavior, writing essays, and developing PowerPoint presentations.

"They had to really make connections between their personal experiences, and their observations, and what they were reading," she said.

It's all music to the ears of Boys' Latin founder and CEO David Hardy.

"Education doesn't always happen in the classroom," said Hardy. "We live in a city that has all these places where students can learn, and we want to make sure we utilize them."

Boys' Latin now serves almost 500 students — all boys, almost all African American, many of them poor.

The school does just so-so on standardized tests, but Hardy says that's only part of the equation.

"Over the past three years, we've gotten guys into over 120 different colleges. Not one of them asked about the state test," Hardy said.

"We need to spend more time on SAT prep. We need to spend more time on critical thinking. We need to spend time on things where these kids are going to have practical knowledge that they can apply when they go to college or on their jobs. That's what education is."

Hardy says kids like Marcus Smalls need to be shown that the world is a lot bigger than the corner of 53rd and Master streets.

"Philadelphia is broken up into a bunch of small, 10-block-radius towns, where nobody ventures beyond that area," he said. "All these insular communities create opportunities for conflict whenever someone comes into that community. So we want to dispel the myth that it has to be that way, and we sent kids all over the place."

Hardy also said that it's important for the dog-walkers in Rittenhouse Square and the shoppers at Liberty Place to see African-American young men in their crisp navy Boys' Latin blazers, notebooks at the ready:

"I want the city to know that there are hard-working kids, curious kids, who are good kids, who are doing this for the academic value, who are not going to harm them. They're not a flash mob. They're students. They're learning."

Turning his eyes on home

Like any good social scientist, Marcus Smalls came away from his research with a better understanding of his own environment.

Ackerman also urged her students to observe what goes on in their own homes. Smalls set up shop at the dining room table.

"That's like the hot spot for where they would go," Smalls explained. "Everybody sits down there and does their homework, and after they're done, they sit there and have a long talk and everything. It's kind of like a family meeting."

During his observations, said Smalls, he noticed for the first time just how busy his mom really is.

"She just loves to do work," he said. "It made me look up to her. She inspired me, because she doesn't let anything distract her."

For Carly Ackerman, that counts as a victory.

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.

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Comments (35)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on May 1, 2013 4:50 pm
Props Carly. I love it. Props to David Hardy, too. I agree that standardized tests are only part of the equation. They are inaccurate measures of what we really learn in schools. Or shall I say, What we learn from the world that surounds us. It is important to enable teachers who enlarge the worlds of their students.
Submitted by Citizen (not verified) on May 1, 2013 5:38 pm
Hite lied about Central Office staffing. If he will blatantly lie about staffing levels, something easy to catch, what else will he lie about...? Ramos is appointed by Corbett - enough said.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on May 1, 2013 7:54 pm
I've never been inside Boys Latin, but I've seen the outside of the building. It's the former Transfiguration of Our Lord parochial school. Anyone familiar with Catholic schools in the city knows that many are old and in disrepair. Having been inside several Catholic schools in lower income neighborhoods in the city, I highly doubt that Transfiguration's interior looked the way that the picture above depicts. That brings me to my question: Where did Boys Latin come up with the money to make such extensive renovations of its interior? And why does its interior look so much nicer and modern than the interior of many District-run schools? Education Grad Student
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 12:27 am
For one, and I'm just guessing here, they probably have janitors & building maintenance services whose primary job it is to clean, who can be fired if they don't do their job. Unlike the district where the most important job requirement of SEIU staff is voting, kicking back cash to the local machine, and finding low work jobs for city pols' idiot friends, relatives and machine hangers on. When a building isn't clean in the district, "whadduyou gonna do bout it?" Of course the answer is nothing. Just another self-inflicted wound causing parents flee district run schools.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on May 2, 2013 6:57 pm
I work at a District school and can totally relate to your statements about the janitors. The building engineer is great, but the janitors don't clean classrooms on a regular basis. The building is filthy. The janitors at the Mastery school where I spent time thoroughly swept/mopped/vacuumed every classroom every day. I've worked at other places, e.g. a non-profit and a business, and the janitorial services were very good. If there were District janitors who were unionized and did the same quality of work that I have seen janitors at other places do, I'd be happy. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 8:05 am
They have a few very wealthy donors who have given them the kind of money District schools could only dream of.
Submitted by For the Kids (not verified) on May 2, 2013 1:35 pm
Man, what a comment! And you are a grad students in education! It is thoughts like this that jeopardize our future especially if your are in front of students actually teaching. The building looks the way it looks because the staff and students respect each other and the space they have to create. This CEO values a good appears (Nice building and nice uniforms) as he sees what a nice building can do to inspire and build the moral of his students. Your comment makes it seem that inter city schools cannot be nice or modern. Well if you are a grad student in education you will not make in this city because you cannot think out of the box. You have an expectation of failure built in and you don't even know it!
Submitted by Education Grad ... on May 2, 2013 6:32 pm
For the Kids, You totally misunderstood my comment. The point of my comment was to make a point about the money that Boys Latin has received to refurbish the interior of its building. My comment has nothing to do with expectations. I have spent time in several Catholic schools in lower income neighborhoods. I know people who attended Transfiguration within the last 20 years. The school did not look like that on the inside when it was a parochial school! This has nothing to do with expectations and everything to do with money. A lack of money (in part due to the sexual abuse scandal) as well as the financial states of some parishes makes the kind of improvements that occurred since Boys Latin bought the building cost-prohibitive. In addition, the reality is that many public schools in this city, including many in low-income neighborhoods, have old buildings which are in need of significant repairs and updating. Glass panels are missing from doors. Sinks and toilets go without fixing. Locks are broken. Classrooms haven't been repainted in years. Go into a Mastery Charter School and the buildings are in better condition because Mastery receives private funding for refurbishing buildings. EGS
Submitted by Urban Educator (not verified) on May 1, 2013 7:33 pm
What a wonderful article showcasing a committed educator and her dynamic students. Kudos to Boys Latin.
Submitted by MBA to M'Ed mom (not verified) on May 1, 2013 10:46 pm
I heard this on the radio tonight and really enjoyed the story! Thanks!
Submitted by Citizen (not verified) on May 2, 2013 12:10 am
Congratulations to the teacher and her students. The CEO said - "The school does just so-so on standardized tests, but Hardy says that's only part of the equation." I agree. Will the SRC / Philadelphia School Partnership / Hite / Khin agree when they label other schools "failing" because of test scores? There can not be a double standard - one for charters and one for public schools.
Submitted by Dina (not verified) on May 2, 2013 8:05 am
Putting the issues about where they get the money and whether or not they pay union wages for workers aside for the moment (not that these are unimportant), I'm thrilled to see these charter school students doing such wonderful and engaging learning, and I applaud their teacher. All students should be getting this experience, rather than marching quietly through halls and prepared for mind numbing tests.
Submitted by Joan Taylor on May 2, 2013 8:27 am
It sounds like Boys Latin has at least one wonderful teacher, and I'm always relieved to read an article that acknowledges how thoughtfully many of my colleagues approach their work. But...this particular article ends up being a puff piece. Boys Latin has many problems (which is to be expected in a school that serves kids who fall at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder), and it has the low test scores to prove it. Aside from the many troubling aspects of charter schools in and of themselves, Boys Latin is a school that is struggling. I wish this were not so. I've taught a number of kids who have gone on to Boys Latin, and--like all teachers--I want the best for the children I've gotten to know. This piece belongs on a school's webpage, perhaps, but not here. I expect to read more even-handed accounts from both Ben and the Notebook.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 11:53 am
Ms. Taylor, As a teacher in a school that has admissions requirements, I guess it's easy for you to look down your nose at the success of others. It might be a good idea to check your facts. You say Boys' Latin has had many problems. Compared to who? If you compare them to the high schools in West and Southwest Philadelphia, their problems are nonexistent. The low test scores that the CEO referred to were higher than all the neighborhood high schools in West/Southwest Philly. The only high schools in the area who score greater than 50% proficient in reading were Future, Motivation, Parkway, and Boys' Latin. The only schools who scored higher than 40% in math were the same schools. The District schools mentioned are all special admission schools like yours. Your former students who went to Boys' Latin have the highest probability of college enrollment of any high school boy in any high school in our part of the city. Boys' Latin's first graduating class had 74% enrollment in college. That was higher than the District's average for Asian girls! Their second class was enrolled in college at 81%. The only District schools higher than that are Masterman, Central, and Carver. Puff? No. This is a school that has made tremendous strides in just 6 years and two graduating classes. Next time, please make sure you know what you're talking about. Every school does not get to pick their students like yours does. Boys' Latin Supporter
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 11:26 am
And Boy's Latin doesn't CHOOSE their students?
Submitted by anon, anon, we must go anon (not verified) on May 2, 2013 12:22 pm
I will say that Boy's Latin has a fairly liberal admission policy as charters go, but of course you must have highly motivated parents/guardians to even get the application. That is how they choose. They also release (kick out) any one who cannot/will not follow rules. Their process for getting rid of students (like all charters) is way more streamlined that the District process.
Submitted by Citizen (not verified) on May 2, 2013 12:54 pm
Their admission process requires parents attending a meeting before applying. Then, once a student applies, the parents and student have to a meeting with an admissions counselor. Then, they will take the application. I've had first hand experience with a child (who chose not to go to the school.) I know that they kick out students who don't follow the rules and are a "behavior problem." That said, so do special admit and magnet schools. As usual, the neighborhood schools must take anyone and are shamed and stigmatized. It is no win situation. The Phila. School Partnership will declare more schools "successful" - and the SRC will give them the stamp of approval. Then, the Partnership will trash on more neighborhood schools and they will be shut. Meanwhile, so called progressives are justifying the situation as "we have no other choice." Bull ...
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 1:58 pm
which is more important, choosing your students (crap shoot, anyone can look good for an hour interview etc...) or actually having a streamlined system to address or remove disruptive students( completely lacking in public schools) Either way, at the end of the day, if charters had to deal w/ problems students like the pubs, any insignificant gains trumpeted by charters would disappear immediately.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on May 2, 2013 1:54 pm
No, NO, NO-----You mean Charter Schools aren't Public Schools????????? They say they are. Corbett says they are. Nutter says they are. Duncan says they are. They receive Federal Money as PUBLIC SCHOOLS !!! You mean they can just toss kids any time they want and they're PUBLIC SCHOOLS?? There is no due process??????? They don't sound like any PUBLIC SCHOOL I've worked in for 30 years. What a load of crap charters are and they STILL don't perform better than the traditional PUBLIC SCHOOLS even with all the cherry picking and support they receive from the pols.
Submitted by Citizen (not verified) on May 2, 2013 2:22 pm
Philly magnet / special admit schools dump students too. The neighborhood school is the last resort yet is threatened and stigmatized because of test scores.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on May 2, 2013 2:44 pm
Citizen-----It is stigmatized because most of the kids they house are poor, people of color and their parents are likewise. Magnet Schools have a different clientele and their parents are likewise too. It's EASY to focus on the poor because generally, they can't fight back. It's EASY money to be made by the charter lie folk and the crooked pols who support them. That's also why they dare NOT take their snake oil crap to the affluent suburbs and yes, you are correct, they wouldn't dream running their scam at Masterman etc.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 5:46 pm
I agree with you. If they're Public Schools, they shouldn't be able to throw kids out whenever they feel like it. They have it both ways so they're in the catbird seat right now. They are NOT Public Schools so let's be honest for a minute.
Submitted by Joan Taylor on May 2, 2013 12:32 pm
Perhaps a careful rereading of my comments will reveal that I most emphatically was not looking down my nose at the success reported in this piece. My school, MYA, falls between being a neighborhood school and being a special admit school. The kids from Powel come to MYA (unless they get into a special admit school), as do some of the kids from the former Drew Elementary, and the rest of our kids come through a lottery. There are no academic admission requirements. I am not aware that my principal has much, if any, leeway over who gets accepted. It does, I believe, make a difference that some of our kids come through a lottery admissions process. Obviously, these are kids whose parents knew about and followed through on the lottery procedure, which means that we most likely have as parents people who know how to navigate the system, which gives their kids what may be unfair advantages. Having spent most of my career working in a neighborhood school, I am sensitive to how subtle the differences can be that tip a school toward success or failure. I believe that charter schools break faith with a democratic commitment to educate all of our students fairly. I also think our reliance on property taxes to fund public schools is an even greater breach of this public responsibility. Further, I am disturbed by charter school advocates who are frequently anti-teacher and virulently anti-union. In light of these beliefs, I am concerned that this story, not in its intention but in its effect, operates as propaganda for a system that is wrong for our children in the long run.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on May 2, 2013 1:54 pm
It is a puff piece. The trouble is you are NOT an evenhanded person and your "facts" are as much willful thinking as facts. I have no idea about Boy's Latin itself but all of the charters with which I am familiar, have no real, objective accountability standards. Evaluations are done "intramurally" which can be code for "subjective." Nobody with sense has ill will for the kids but to suggest that Boy's Latin has no problems or anything even remotely close to that, is just silly at best. Again, overall, it is a puff piece and more and more, The Notebook cherry picks what and how to report. They have bills to pay too. Also, for the record, I don't know Joan Taylor nor where she teaches.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on May 2, 2013 6:37 pm
Boys' Latin Supporter, Does Boys Latin provide services for all students? If a student with an intellectual disability or moderate to severe autism or a visual impairment wanted to enroll at Boys Latin, would that child receive the proper services? Does Boys Latin have services for students who qualify for Emotional Support? The fact is that students needing Emotional Support and who have low-incidence disabilities cannot receive the appropriate services in most charter schools. For these students, the District is the only choice. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 3, 2013 3:07 am
Does the District truly provide services for these students, either? Honestly, having taught in a couple District high schools, the formal special education services the students received were minimal. Perhaps the school was technically "serving" them, but they certainly weren't getting appropriate educational services. IEPs were usually cut-and-pasted, "services" generally never happened (even if they were offered), and even if they did get offered, they were not well coordinated with students actual course of study. To be honest, most of my Emotional Support students would have been better off in many of the charters that have real school-wide behavioral support systems than getting formal "services" in a District school. I taught quite a few student who qualified for Emotional Support. Not a single one came to my class with a real behavior plan, behavior goals, or any actual substantive services. They all technically had IEPs, and such, but it didn't really mean much on the ground. I'm not defending the charter schools--they need to serve all students. But right now, the District doesn't really serve all students either, but it will let them in the door to languish in classes that don't meet their needs.
Submitted by Anonym (not verified) on May 3, 2013 5:33 am
As a special ed. teacher, you are paid extra to write / maintain their IEPs. Many schools also have an SEL to dot he same. Wasn't this done at your school?
Submitted by Concerned Philadelphian, Teacher (not verified) on May 2, 2013 1:11 pm
What IS missing from this piece is a fuller description of the academic and social opportunities available to boys of color provided by a school like Boys' Latin. You can pass around insults (about teachers, no less!), statistics, and complaints about how clean the halls are all you want. What remains is that even our best schools fail when it comes to nurturing and providing support for young men of color. Putting the article into this context makes it far from a puff piece. Yes, test scores, as the CEO noted, suggest that theres much room for improvement. But the bigger picture is much more complex. And it is even more complex considering that young men--our city's young Black men--are finding a place where they can have a learning experience like this. I wonder how many males of color in our city's schools have experiences like this. That's not discussed here, unfortunately. Furthermore, I applaud The Notebook for giving us a glimpse into a single teacher's classroom so that the rest of us might use it as inspiration to improve our classrooms. I imagine teachers like me took something valuable away from reading this. The pedagogical choices were at the center of this piece. Thank you for opening up this school for us to peak into.
Submitted by Concerned Philadelphian, Teacher (not verified) on May 2, 2013 9:25 pm
No one will respond to my comment? Or is it easier to wonder about the nice paint job in the halls?
Submitted by Anonym (not verified) on May 3, 2013 5:32 am
Many teachers and students are doing amazing learning. Congratulations to this teacher / students for getting recognition. (Hopefully The Notebook will feature other programs as well.) What is frustrating is the SRC / Hite /Khin and the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) are closing schools based on test scores. It is a contradictory message from those in power - yes, authentic learning is great BUT we will close you if your scores are low. School District schools are being closed while most charters are left open despite the test scores. Now, in public schools in PA in 2014- but NOT charters - teachers will be evaluated based on test scores. (This is happening in other states - NJ just announced 30% of a teachers evaluation will be on test scores.) With many students in neighborhood schools entering high school reading at least 2 - 5 levels below grades level, there will be continued emphasis on test scores. Until the standardized testing mania ends, there will be too few stories of authentic learning in schools that service the students with most need. As long as special admit / magnets and charters are allowed to select students while neighborhood schools accept all students - with a disproportionate number of students with special needs - powerful people like Hite/Khin/SRC/PSP will be able to punish and stigmatize neighborhood schools. It is a catch 22 - provide authentic learning experiences and get labeled failing as a school and teacher or focus on test prep. Unfortunately, the test prep doesn't always produce results when many of the students are entering neighborhood high school reading at a 3rd - 5th grade level and struggle with fractions.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 3, 2013 3:55 am
Thank you. This attitude, if widespread, would go a long way toward helping improve education in the city: focus on what works and the individuals who are doing great things and how to use them for inspiration. Not finding 101 ways (none of which have a thing to do with the actual quality of education--the only thing that should matter), to tear down charter schools (or District schools, for that matter).
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 1:33 pm
David Hardy is a great leader!
Submitted by Education Grad ... on May 2, 2013 7:25 pm
Ms. Ackerman's ethnography assignment is an example of learning that one cannot measure using a standardized test, but allows students to make connections and think critically. It's awesome that Ms. Ackerman had the freedom to give this kind of assignment! In our increasingly interconnected world, it's important that people are comfortable spending time in unfamiliar neighborhoods and cities around unfamiliar people. Breaking out of one's comfort zone an important way of growing and expanding one's horizons. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 2, 2013 10:27 pm
Phase out all the magnets and special admit schools and have all students attend a neighborhood school. Tis is the only way to get public schools back to where they were prior to the magnet school movement. This is what destroyed public education. Charters are magnet schools without union teachers
Submitted by Lorraine Burkett (not verified) on May 8, 2013 2:09 am
This is more than just watching. The school does just so-so on standardized tests, but Hardy says that's only part of the equation. thanks

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