December 1 — 2:09 pm, 2009

New school offers nurturing alternative for expelled students

Philadelphia Learning Academy, a District-run school, opened two sites this fall.

When Benjamin Wright, regional superintendent for alternative education, spearheaded the District’s initiative to open two new schools for expelled students this fall, he envisioned small, nurturing environments.

So far, that’s exactly what he’s getting.

Just ask Shaquil Jones, a junior at Philadelphia Learning Academy South (PLAS).

“It’s smaller and my teachers care more about the students than at the other school,” he says.

PLAS and its companion school, Philadelphia Learning Academy North, are the District’s two newest alternative schools, with a combined enrollment so far of about 112 students.

 As of October, 24 boys and seven girls attended PLAS, located in an old Catholic elementary school on Wharton Street. With three administrators, 10 teachers and five “Youth Service Assistants,” who monitor the halls and mentor students, the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:3. The largest class has 12 students, but there are classes as small as two.

The size has helped create an intimate school environment where adults know every student’s name.

“You can form really good relationships with the students,” says first-year English and special education teacher Sarah Truitt.

Truitt is one of seven Teach For America corps members at the school. The other three teachers at the school are also in their first year.

From the students’ perspective, being in small classes cuts down on distractions.

Sophomore Latifah Douglass says, “Nine times out of 10, everybody gets along [because] there’s not a lot of people to have different cliques.”

Shaquil adds that the small size also means “students can’t run around cutting [or] thinking they could get away with it.”

Though the schools accommodate students who have been expelled from the District or are waiting for their expulsion hearing, principal Michael Rocco, a 30-year veteran with a background in special education, says, “It’s not a discipline school, it’s a high school.”

“We don’t care how they got here … this is an opportunity for the students, [and] here, everything is based on positive reinforcement,” he says.

“They are our kids. We can’t throw them away and we wouldn’t throw them away,” adds Wright.

The staff sends that message in a number of ways. Rocco recently photographed students with perfect attendance and plans to display the photos on a bulletin board outside the office. Students in good academic and behavioral standing also were rewarded with the chance to play against the staff in the first basketball game of the year.

There are plans to create more incentives for students through extracurricular activities like a chess club and a basketball team. Students have already started a student government.

At PLAS, students receive personalized academic and behavioral support. Every student has a personalized learning plan – created by the dean of students and each student’s teacher – that includes instructional, socio-emotional, attendance, and graduation goals. Once it’s complete, staff members meet with the student and his or her parent to review it and sign a contract based on its expectations. Students are held to the contract and can be dismissed from school if they fail to comply. Two students have been dismissed so far this year.

PLAS’s small and nurturing environment is complemented by a strong academic focus. One English class involved a mini-lecture about the Cold War and discussions about Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In their computer class, students can be found exploring college websites for information about admissions requirements.

Latifah says teachers are challenging their students with interactive learning.

“We do hands-on stuff. In science we do experiments, in Spanish we listen, and in English we act out plays.”

And if there is work that students have already mastered, Latifah says, “they give me more work.”

So far, student attendance is one sign of the school’s success. Truitt says that when staff received attendance records for students at their old schools, they saw a big improvement across the board. One student, who was recently honored for perfect attendance at PLAS, had an attendance rate of 8 percent at her old school.

It is hard to predict how the school will fare as it grows. As many as four new students arrive each week, and Rocco says they expect to have 100 students enrolled by the winter break. The maximum capacity is 200.

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