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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.

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Comments (30)

Submitted by Barb Nelson (not verified) on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 20:33.

Thanks, Syd, for an insightful and thought-provoking look at how you and the staff at Edison are coming "full circle" in a turn-around effort. Your dedication to making the best of difficult circumstances is certainly evident.

One slight correction--I'm fairly certain that I am the teacher from Strawberry Mansion whom you discuss above as believing that "the kids would have problems" but not counting on "the system being equally impaired." Those are really not my thoughts at all. Instead, I always strive to remember that I signed up to work in a "broken system" in order to make a positive impact, and that some of the difficulties we face on a daily basis are symptoms of that brokenness. Remembering this helps provide perspective and a reminder to expect--not be surprised by--problems created by the "system." Expecting that there will be problems created by shifts in District policies or finances allows us to absorb them and move on, focusing on what we can do to help the students in front of us.

Reflection is key to improving teaching practice and improving our schools, and your piece is a great reminder of this!

Submitted by Tara (not verified) on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 21:33.

Sydney, There are such overwhelming and daily struggles, and I appreciated hearing how the you (and the teachers you work with) have managed to find successes. But, it always comes down to teachers. Teachers pick up the slack when the SDP ignores their responsibilities. What I fear is that the more and more teachers do means the less the District has to do. You are asking the SDP to collaborate and cooperate with us. The SDP can't even give teachers a fair contract.

Submitted by Sydney Coffin (not verified) on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 21:46.

Yes--you are that wise teacher! However, I had written a longer article and it had to be cut down to size. I mentioned in the longer version that you had said if the kids needed to work within a complex and sometimes dysfunctional system, then they needed responsible guides with which to navigate that road, which adds a second level of responsibility for us as teachers, and a kind of sacred duty that I value in our work.
Thank you for your example!

Submitted by stephanie silver (not verified) on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 22:36.

First of all, I quite honestly miss my above colleagues. We forged unique relationships with each other... and I am more than certain that every child at UCHS had a safe relationship with at least ONE of us. That always gave us such an amazing flavor. We were a family. And that's why we worked so well in those three amazing years. You hit the nail on the head. It still pains me to think about the progress we were still making... and the unfairness of it all. Especially since OUR seniors of 2014 are being accepted into schools like NYU, Hofstra, etc. Full rides to La Salle and Pennsylvania state schools still keep rolling in. These were our babies.

Your points are critical and well-communicated. And I often think about returning to a promise academy to continue the promise I made to the district's kids. As the youngest in the department, I looked up to you and Barb Nelson. I hope to work with you all again. Magic can be recreated, even in the most desperate of situations. It's the people.

Submitted by Harvey Scribner (Uni 09-11) (not verified) on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 23:10.

You always had the best way of seeing and showing the brightest side of a dark puzzle. Hit the nail squarely on the head. Barb & Silver - always loved working with you two as well. Hopefully the bright side of us all being scattered to the winds is that we spread the lessons of success we had. Uni was as special a place in our city as you can find, especially through the agonizing process of Promise Academy transformation. I consider my time there with you a keystone of my process to learn the trade. It was always nice knowing there was really no depth we would not try to reach to make a difference with those students. Seeing most of them reject the thug mentality and strive to be more was such an honor. I hope the positive spin that comes from losing our home there is that by Gods grace we can ultimately mimic it throughout the city! Keep the faith!


Submitted by Notebook reader (not verified) on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 23:19.

It's heartening to read these comments from Syd, Barb, and Stephanie -- a spirit still alive in the School District in these bleak times. I wonder how many of the UCHS teachers are still with the School District after what Stephanie rightly calls "the unfairness of it all."
As someone who worked very briefly among you (supervising a student teacher), I'm grateful to see evidence that at least some of the commitment, the absence of bitterness, survive even now.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 06:58.

Why did grant money for Promise Academies go to charters?

Submitted by Harvey Scribner (Uni 09-11) (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 08:04.

I don't know that it did. Most of the grants I knew about ended as they dissolved the Promise Academies. Other funds shifted to schools along with the students as far as I know.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 08:27.

Wasn't it the DOL (Department of Labor grant) that had funded promise academies for a couple of years, and then expired?

Submitted by Annonym (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 11:37.

DOL grants provided an enormous amount of extra money for a few schools. Those schools were often top heavy with administrators and people given administrative duties.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 13:05.

Here's the link. Philadelphia schools got the grants then were turned over to charters.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 20:41.

So the schools got millions and were then turned to Renaissance. Did the money go to the charter with the building?

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 08:24.

It is really Great to read that the Uni spirit lives on within the district. It is special. I worked there for twenty years starting in 1975 and back then it had an "ethos all its own." Uni was born out of the civil rights era and it exemplified the spirit of the times. We dealt with anything and everything. What you describe sounds just like it was back in the day. Our camaraderie was amazing.

The school had its life and it has now had its death. Only those who walked its hallways and helped its students can really understand what it was like. When I attended the closure public sessions, I felt like I knew those kids making their impassioned speeches. You all obviously really did make a difference in their lives.

I loved working there and always felt like we were doing something meaningful for our students. I know we tried hard. Those were fun days as I look back, and the friendships we made with our students and colleagues still last today.

You will make a difference in the future of the district. I assure you that you will.

Submitted by activist (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 10:21.

team thomas edison .... well put coffin you do a great job here and we are pleased to have you

Submitted by UCity teacher (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 11:22.

Hey Coffin!!!

It's McCook. I read this and thought you are so right. We were doing really good things at UCity and I think we had success for more reasons than just the additional financial support from the district. Think about it, things were constantly changing after the 1st year of the PA, and was never funded at the 1st year level, after the 1st year.

Most of us stayed past the 4PM let out and stayed after regardless of financial compensation a lot of times because we knew OUR students needed us. Silver is absolutely right when she says our relationships have continued with our students even though we aren't physically with them everyday.

Being in another, already existing, PA this year, I can honestly say it is not the funding that creates a successful community, because if that was the case the work would still be continuing. It's the passion and dedication to the students in the building that creates that, and your dedication to our Uni kids was unparalleled. Good luck at Edison, I hope you can infuse your passion into the building there and help create the environment we know can exist in the schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 12:13.

Edison is doomed as long as it it led by someone who refuses to listen to any argument or debate contrary to his own, and retaliates against those who dare speak a contrary opinion. District blew it's chance at truly improving Edison when they threw out Ed Koch, John Fangipani and the vast majority of seasoned teachers who had spent years building relationships with the students and neighborhood there and were achieving real results.

Current administration was brought in to guide Edison into "chartered" waters within the next year or so. It's about money and who controls the building, not about educating the kids. There is more going on at Edison than is allowed to leak into the press.

Submitted by activist (not verified) on Thu, 12/19/2013 - 11:41.

i pray u dont teach because u obviously never been to edison

Submitted by Leteacher (not verified) on Thu, 12/19/2013 - 22:26.

Edison is doomed? Ed Koch? Are you crazy??? Ed Koch was a good presence in the hallways, but as a was all a joke! Mr Frangipani was an awesome man, that I can testify to. Principal Baltimore is not against anyone, he needs staff to be accountable and work with what we have, for our students, it's not like we have a choice anyways. There is a difference between a teacher and an educator, he is right about that. And with the new staff willing to move forward we can make EFHS better for students and staff.

Submitted by gdgman3 on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 14:06.

Thoughtful and thought-provoking article, Syd. My time at UCity was relatively brief, but I miss the staff and students every day in ways I might not have expected. I look forward to hearing more stories from your challenges and successes at Edison.

Submitted by Dina (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 15:18.

I was at "Uni" from 1996 to 2003. There were over 2000 students and during some of those years all the things that you describe as "wonderful" existed there - engaged staff and students, opportunities for students, exciting things going on in classrooms, and most of all, deep relationships among ALL staff (including faculty, NTA's and other staff) and students. We didn't need a "Promise Academy," and we didn't need scripted, dumbed down curriculum either. Teachers and groups of teachers had autonomy in small learning communities, and we all felt we had a place to belong. In large part this was the result of awesome leadership (Torch Lytle), and a group of teachers and staff who, once they were inspired, worked hard with each other and for students. I'm not suggesting that your experience with the Promise Academy wasn't good, however. I am suggesting that sufficient resources, quality leadership, and great ideas can improve schools.

Submitted by Jung (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 21:50.

It's heartwarming to hear about the success of Uni. Hang in there and don't get burned out. Your patience is endless Syndey.

Submitted by JMH (not verified) on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 21:53.

Sydney...You are amazing with your insight. I try to tell folks all the time what a great place Uni became....and likely always was... It really lives in all of us who experienced the last few years and in particular those of us that live through the bitter end. The way you and all the teachers and staff were able to connect with students is priceless and those kids will never forget. It was home. We still grieve the loss, but we have those great experiences to look back on and try to re-create at the schools we are at now. Sydney, Scrib, Barb, Silver, your thing!!!! You will continue to have that UNI EFFECT everywhere you go....make every place you go and every young person you teach better....


Submitted by Erica (not verified) on Thu, 12/19/2013 - 00:18.

Mr coffin this is Erica and I do understand how you're feeling but honestly I do miss University City only because I still want the home that we all had seen it I want that we all can be together again as a family as the university family and I hope one day before they sell it we can be there one more time , I wish we could still fight for our home .

Submitted by germantown_edu (not verified) on Thu, 12/19/2013 - 16:34.

Same sentiment going from Germantown High School Promise Academy to teaching at Martin Luther King. I'm in awe of the state of this school, it's as if the Promise Academy model backfired now that there's no money or support. I feel bad for any student going to this school.

Submitted by Harvey Scribner (Uni 09-11) (not verified) on Thu, 12/19/2013 - 17:23.

MLK is a mess, and was one even as a Promise Academy because of the physical layout of the building to some extent. Now dealing with transfers from other regional hotspots, must be a war zone at times. Still, there are always bright spots to any dark day. I know many educators there who are worth their weight in gold for the job they do. Strawberry Mansion too!

Submitted by Charlie Baltimore (not verified) on Thu, 12/19/2013 - 21:02.

Mr. Coffin, your editorial is a perfect illustration of the qualities needed to be an effective agent of change, at a time of change. You are articulate, intelligent and passionate. You are willing to speak truth to the power and have the courage to sign your name to your words. I know from experience you are loved by your learners, respected by your peers, and confident enough to provide powerful leadership and real solutions. The leadership you and your fellow educators provide everyday is the reason Edison will continue to grow into one of the most dynamic institutions of learning in the region. I am proud to be your principal. Stay the course...

Submitted by Glen Casey (not verified) on Thu, 01/02/2014 - 02:32.


Reading this article reminded me off the great days we had in uni. Honestly, every student built some type of relationship with a teacher of their choice. It was those relationships us students had with teachers that built the environment of our home. Speaking on my own behalf, you guys helped me understand myself as a individual caught in the midst of a dysfunctional education system. Thus, I realized the extra steps I needed to take in order to be successful in the future. Sadly though, the grounds in which we built those relationships on has been stripped from us, leaving us displaced in unfamiliar environments. Your ambition to help cultivate those same qualities we had at uni in Edison is very optimistic. I'm sure that with teachers like yourself, your aspirations of a better learning environment for the district can be accomplished. Keep speaking out Mr.Coffin, your voice is strong and you have the power to help change the futures of thousands of students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 01/02/2014 - 20:44.

Uh, given the current condition of "Uni", please don't repeat anything at Edison

Submitted by Facilities (not verified) on Fri, 03/14/2014 - 08:37.

For someone who spent ten years of my life at U City. I seen the best and worst, I think all the teachers that were there and know are at Edison you deserve thanks. Under the toughest atmosphere you succeeded. We tried to provide a good building to learn in and most times we did it our selves without help from facilities. I will do my best to do the same here. Thanks all

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 03/30/2014 - 14:16.

When Uni went from 2,000 to 550 kids, where did the other 1450 go? And what became of them?
Or does that not matter?

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