Coming full circle: Lessons of a Promise Academy teacher
by thenotebook on Dec 17 2013 Posted in Commentary
by Sydney Coffin
Seven years ago, I began teaching at a high school that was dangerous, chaotic, and, some said, “failing.” By the time I left, it had become a welcoming, effective school, where I was pleased to teach and honored to be friends with students and staff.
That school closed, so this year I started at another, and I feel I’ve come full circle. Crowded classrooms, disruptive behavior, chaos in the hallways, low academic achievement, a lack of sufficient counselors and other supports – the very same things I found when I walked into University City High in 2006 were present in Edison High in 2013.
“Uni” was never perfect, but we came a long way in three years as a Promise Academy.
And though I have great hopes for Edison, I am afraid we must now do on our own what Uni was doing with significant District support – and do it with larger classes, fewer staff, and a lot more pressure.
With the first semester of life under the District’s “doomsday budget” nearly over, now is a good time to reflect on what made Uni successful and consider how Edison, and schools like it, can replicate that success, even in an age of crunched budgets.
Looking back at 'Uni'
When I arrived for work in 2007, University City High was about to be named the 22nd-most dangerous school in the country. With almost 2,000 students, nearly every kid inside had been suspended at one time or another. Outside, things were no better. One report at the time found that a West Philadelphian was more likely to get shot than a soldier in Iraq. This was the year the entire city earned the nickname “Killadelphia.”
By the time Uni shut down in June 2013, things were different.
The school had shrunk to about 550 students. The Promise Academy initiative brought new technology, smaller classes, and a new principal with compassion and vision. I’d spent countless hours with my students and fellow teachers. Between the water cooler I’d bought for my room, the granola bars I gave away, and the classes I taught or covered for other teachers, I felt like I had shaken hands and become friendly with almost every student. I’d become what we at the school called “Unified.” The school became my home.
It wasn’t the facilities that made these successes possible -- that building was a concrete turd. Many rooms were built with temporary walls and no windows, and you could hear everything from neighboring classrooms. Temperatures topped 90 degrees in the coldest days of winter, despite the engineer’s best efforts. Bugs infested the main office. Mysterious flakes sprinkled from the ceiling tiles. The abandoned swimming pool’s ceiling caved in.
Instead, what made Uni a success was our intense effort to cultivate relationships -- with the young people we served and among the adults.
On our first day as a Promise Academy, all 85 teachers sat in a circle and talked meaningfully as we committed to longer school days and Saturday school. The staff was infused with a sense of purpose and optimism. Classes got smaller. Academics got stronger. Camaraderie sprung up within a community possessing a new sense of its own history, traditions, characters, and culture. Every kid had a network of people who knew them and their particular issues, and people wanted each other to do well.
The hard work paid off. In our final year, seniors earned full rides to Penn, Temple, La Salle, Clarion, Pitt, Penn State and more. Our students were doing what everyone says they hope all students do: building relationships, experiencing success, and heading off to college with a solid foundation on which to build their lives.
A school closes, a new chapter starts
Then the budget ax fell. After only three years as a Promise Academy, Uni was slated for closure. By May, every kid had made plans to go somewhere else. Many of my colleagues were laid off, and I ended up at Edison High in what is called an “incubation year.”
It has been a challenge from the start – and one strongly reminiscent of my early days at Uni. Our staff was cut from 110 teachers to 80, and many were new. We enrolled 200 new students, who brought to Edison a host of conflicts from other schools. Classes were overcrowded. Hallways were chaotic. Dozens of students cut class daily and roamed the building, intimidating and unnerving anybody – kids and teachers alike – trying to go about the business of education.
To put it mildly: It was not a climate for intimate learning.
Things have improved since then. Another assistant principal and more noontime aides were brought back and have helped control the climate. A few more teachers – and a few departed students -- led to reduced class sizes. My 39-student poetry class is down to 33; another is down from 45. We’ve elected class officers. Students cheer at talent shows and for sports teams, and they stay after school for ROTC, dance, drum teams and the glee club.
Daily school attendance still needs improvement, bathroom fires have disturbed us several times, and outrageous hall behavior is still an issue. But I am beginning to get to know my students. I see my colleagues making Herculean efforts to connect with theirs. Some of the good things I saw happen at Uni are already happening at Edison, and I’m full of hope.
And yet, I feel that today’s relative calm could be deceiving – as if we have passed into the eye of the storm, but haven’t yet escaped the hurricane.
Can Edison do what University City did?
For now, one thing seems clear: If Edison is to replicate any of University City’s success, it’s up to the staff in the building to make it happen.
We have to do it with larger classes, fewer staff, and a lot more pressure. Students now must pass the Keystone State tests in certain classes to graduate. The stakes are higher, the resources lower, and the future of the District itself as uncertain as ever.
This can be discouraging. A wise colleague who teaches at Strawberry Mansion High once told me that when she committed to teaching in Philadelphia’s public schools, she knew the kids would have problems, but she didn’t count on the system being equally impaired.
But we’re trying. After our staff spent two exhausting days together in professional development, we came to the overwhelming conclusion that we need to work together and do more with less. We need to reach out to kids, parents, and each other. We need courage, organization, and strength.
I’m ready to do my part. Yet, even as I invest myself in my new home, I feel it necessary to look at the larger picture in the District.
There is much more we teachers can do to help replicate the good things that I saw happen at Uni, even if budgets stay as tight as they are. And I believe there is much more the District can do to work effectively with teachers.
There are some good signs on that front. District officials have agreed to meet with a group of teachers to talk about how we can take more of a leadership role in professional development. I’ll be there. I want to be a part of the solution, not just for Edison but for the whole District.
If I learned anything at Uni, it’s that teachers like me can’t do it alone. We need steady, supportive relationships just like the students do.
So if I could share one message with the District, it’s this: Collaborate with us. Cooperate with us. Let us play a role shaping District policies. Teachers are the ones in the room with kids day in and day out, so don’t think of us as adversaries – think of us as partners. Build relationships with us, just as we build relationships with students, and together we can make all our schools as promising as they should be.
Sydney Coffin is a teacher in the Philadelphia School District.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.