May 25 — 11:00 pm, 2005

Glimpses at success: great strides in some racially isolated schools

Edmonds, Kearny are among several predominantly nonwhite schools in Philadelphia showing strong student achievement.

Over the past decade since Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner’s ruling demanding improvements in what she called the “substandard quality of education in racially isolated minority schools,” much of the focus on the District’s most racially segregated schools has been negative.

Attention has been drawn to those schools that are floundering. All but three of the 70 low-performing schools targeted for privatization and other management changes in the 2002 takeover were 90 percent or more students of color.

Yet we do not hear much about the schools that have made great strides in “closing the gap” and are fostering high achievement among African American, Latino, and Asian students. Eight predominantly nonwhite neighborhood schools – F.S. Edmonds, Emlen, Heston, Howe, Kearny, Lingelbach, Wagner Middle, and Welsh – continue to defy the trends by getting more than half their students to proficiency in both reading and math on state tests.

What are these schools doing right? What makes them ‘make it’?

Two principals provided glimpses at what is different about these two schools, both with 98 percent or greater African American population, that continue to outperform most of their counterparts. While racially segregated schools as a whole struggle with insufficient funding and less-skilled teaching staffs, these two schools appear to be able to leverage resources to create supportive, encouraging environments for teaching and learning.

F. S. Edmonds School

Sharon Finzimer considers herself lucky. As principal of F. S. Edmonds Elementary School in East Mount Airy, she has benefited from a host of academic and social supports and interventions for her 653 students in grades K-6, with half of her students coming from low-income families.

Edmonds is in its third year of an intensive Saturday reading program managed by Options Publishing that serves about 25 second graders from October through June.

Students in need of focused literacy supports use Fast ForWord (FFW), a software program that helps improve auditory processing skills; Finzimer noted that unlike other schools, at Edmonds, FFW is run by both the resource room teacher and classroom teacher.

Partnerships with local universities include Arcadia University’s math-science practicum, with 50 student teachers doing student pullouts and tutorials. Edmonds partners with Arcadia in other ways – via B2EST (Building Behavioral Support Teams), an expanded, 27-hour professional and paraprofessional development opportunity for all staff over the course of three Saturdays. Kim Dean runs B2EST at Edmonds. “[Professional development] sessions are targeted toward positive climate – we implement strategies to reduce disruptive behaviors. Schoolwide, we help kids build social skills and put classroom systems in place,” said Dean.

Healthy minds demand healthy bodies – and the Food Trust delivers farm-fresh, organically grown food right to Edmonds classrooms.

Staff is also strong. “We have a staff to die for – high teacher attendance, high-quality instruction, caring,” said Finzimer. “Nobody put in for a voluntary transfer.”

The community continues to bring extensive resources to the school. Reformation Church, long a community pillar, runs before- and after-school programming in the school building between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., and offers on-site daycare. People Organized for the Restoration of Temple Stadium (PORTS) raised $50,000 for Edmonds. The District matched it, resulting in a state-of-the-art playground. Alvin Williams, Jr., a Toronto Raptors basketball star and an Edmonds alumnus, contributed $59,000 to go toward 39 iMac computers.

All these offerings seem to have paid off. The school recently became the first in the District to be nominated for the National School Change Award, because of its increase in TerraNova scores at every grade level. Students have made equally significant gains on the PSSA – over the past three years, fifth graders at Edmonds scoring at or above proficient jumped from 18 to 59 percent in reading and from 15 to 52 percent in math.

Kearny School

Kearny is no stranger to honors either.

A small school at 6th and Fairmount serving 325 students in grades K-5, Kearny will add a sixth grade this fall. Its population is 99 percent African American, with four-fifths of the students considered high-poverty. Through skillful use of discretionary funding, class size is also kept small; average class size is 20 in kindergarten and 16 in the first grade.

The school’s high teacher retention rate – about 95 percent of teachers have more than five years tenure – and quality faculty are essential to the school’s success. Knowing the students well helps teaching staff identify students who may need extra help early and guide their progress over the years.

“The key is to identify children – those who are below grade level – at a very early age, as early as kindergarten, before they fall too far behind,” said Principal Eileen Spagnola. “When we see red flags go up, it’s important that we start the CSAP process [Comprehensive Student Assistance Process, an early intervention program for struggling students], and that strategies are put in place early for these kids – mentoring, tutoring, Fast ForWord, afterschool programming. After 60 days, we revisit [the fit]. We work with them and work with them to continuously build their academic skills.”

A series of professional development institutes in math, science, and English language arts – supported by Annenberg Foundation through the Philadelphia Education Fund – has helped teachers over the years to act more as facilitators than as traditional lecturers. Spagnola’s staff learned how to teach hands-on methods, critical thinking skills, and do more cooperative learning.

Collaboration with local higher education institutions fortifies Kearny’s community bond. For example, the school partnered with St. Joseph’s University on GeoKids, a program aimed at enhancing science literacy.

Not only is Kearny a star among its peers, but it continues to outshine itself. Over the past three years, fifth graders at Kearny have made great gains on the PSSA, with a 28 percentage point increase in students scoring at or above proficient. In 2004, 69 percent of fifth graders scored at or above proficient in reading, outperforming students statewide by 6 percentage points.

Edmonds and Kearny lend hope that, despite the inequities in educational opportunities described elsewhere in this issue, more high-achieving racially isolated schools can emerge in Philadelphia. With a relentless focus on getting all students to read on grade level, dedicated principals, collaborative staff teams, and a sense of connection to a larger community, these schools may be able to teach others something about how to use resources in smart and effective ways to improve achievement.

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