May 26 — 2:23 pm, 2010

Showing students a world of opportunities

At Independence Charter School, academic stimulation comes with an international flavor.

20 independence Photo: Harvey Finkle

Ericka Morris, better known to her 4th-graders as Teacher Ericka, knows how to engage her students. On this day at Independence Charter School, they stand in clusters outside the U formed by their desks. 

One student reads from his letter to President Obama regarding Arizona’s new immigration bill. Students who think the statement is clear and persuasive stand on one side. Students who think it lacks something stand on the other. Those who are unsure stand in the middle. Hands go up and cogent arguments fly as Teacher Ericka facilitates the rigorous round of peer critique that follows. 

Scenes like this are not uncommon at nine-year-old Independence Charter School (ICS). The school’s mission is to “provide an intellectually stimulating curriculum with an international focus for Philadelphia youth.” 

ICS exemplifies the potential of the charter school movement to shake up American education, especially in urban areas. Its roots were in a group of parents who wanted something different. It has created a rigorous academic environment, organized around a theme, that has attracted an ethnically and economically diverse group of students. 

Currently located at the site of the former Durham Elementary on Lombard Street in Center City, ICS serves 747 students in grades K–8, who come from 44 of the city’s 50 zip codes. Eighty percent of the kids are students of color and about half live at or below the poverty level. Of the 64 faculty members, 61 percent are White, 25 percent are Latino, and 14 percent are African American.

CEO Jurate Krokys, who has led the school since its founding, said the activity in Morris’s classroom illustrates the school’s commitment to “intellectually stimulating curriculum.” 

“We don’t assume that kids are too young or unsophisticated to do something,” Krokys said. 

As a result, while students in 4th grade discuss immigration and human rights, 2nd graders explore Hinduism, 5th graders rewrite traditional fairy tales into “fractured fantasies,” and kindergarteners make Jackson Pollock-inspired splatter paintings. 

For math, all students take two classes, one focusing on procedures and the other devoted entirely to more complex problem-solving. 

Everywhere, there are opportunities to “Challenge yourself!” – the first of three ICS guidelines posted throughout the halls. The other two guidelines are, “Celebrate and appreciate everyone’s differences!” and “Care for your community!” 

These efforts have paid off. 

Fourth-grader Justin Kang said that one reason he likes his school is that “the work isn’t boring. It’s fun and we learn from it.”

In addition to providing challenging curriculum, ICS’s “international focus” is also apparent throughout the school. Half the students are enrolled by parental choice in a Spanish immersion program, while 50 percent receive Spanish “enhanced” instruction in which they are taught in Spanish for about 10 percent of the day. 

In the middle grades, students are also introduced to Swahili, Arabic, and Mandarin through weekly classes. Beyond studying languages, each grade focuses in depth on two countries a year, with curriculum designed to support the study of these countries. 

The school has experienced so much success with its internationally focused model that it recently sponsored a global studies conference. Held on May 7 at University of the Arts, the event brought together educators and international education advocates to discuss the potential for expanding global studies programs.

“We wanted to get the word out that global studies and second language acquisition are possible in K–8,” Krokys said.

Teaching the ‘whole child’

While its international focus and challenging curriculum are the official components of the school’s mission, its driving philosophy is teaching the “whole child,” Krokys said. 

This means working with parents, building a community among peers, and doing much more than preparing students to take standardized tests. It also means investing in part-time teacher assistants for every classroom and making room in all students’ schedules for art, music, and dance. 

Krokys attributes much of the school’s success to this “whole child” philosophy. 

Morris, who has been teaching at ICS for five years, confirms that the administration is not only dedicated to carrying out the school’s mission, but is also supportive of “using the teachable moments” to make sure students also absorb the “social curriculum.” 

Morris said that this includes “making sure kids have a safe environment, giving them a voice, and encouraging them to be advocates for each other.”

Students have felt the effects. 

Eighth grader Wanya Anderson, who has been at the school since kindergarten, describes his classmates as “accepting.” 

Said 5th grader Kai Burton: “My friends are really fun, and the people I don’t talk to are nice, and you can get along with your classmates.” 

Kai attributes her classmates’ tolerance to intentional school efforts. 

“When we’re going on a camping trip, you have an eating group, a bus group, and you’re not going to be with your friends, so you get to know everyone,” she said. 

A parent’s choice

Parent involvement, a key to the school’s success, has been a big factor since the very beginning, when a group of parents first decided to file a charter application to open the school. 

The parents who founded the school are White. But, said founding member and current board vice chair Pamela Prell, “It wasn’t our intention to start a school just for our kids. 

“As citizens of the city, we felt the kind of school we wanted for our kids was also a kind of school other kids would benefit from.” 

When parents were dissatisfied with the quality and nutritional value of the cafeteria food several years ago, they undertook an investigation to find a better alternative. The school recently decided to continue with the private company the parents had identified as an alternative. 

On the Friday before Mother’s Day, several mothers were fundraising by helping students make mini-videos to email their mothers. 

Annette Earling, whose son Calvin is in the 1st grade, was one of the parents staffing the video booth. She said she likes the school because it’s close to home and has an excellent reputation, but also because she believes in the international focus. 

The school is “teaching the kids to think bigger. It’s too easy to stay local, [but] they’re really trying to open the kids up to different experiences.” 

Earling says that sometimes it is challenging helping Calvin with homework that is all in Spanish, but that it’s worth it to have his mind exposed early to another language. 

The international focus was also important for the group of parents who initially filed the application to open the school. These parents met at a community playground where they all went with their small children. 

According to Prell, who has two children enrolled at the school, once they decided to apply for a charter, they became excited about the possibilities of global education. 

They wanted a school that “really reflected what we thought was important, which was children who saw themselves as citizens of the world at the earliest age, as well as being steeped in what was important in Philadelphia and the history of our country,” Prell said. 

The school’s current waiting list is 350 students just for kindergarten and over 700 altogether. Given a policy of sibling preference, there are 40 slots available in kindergarten, which will be chosen by lottery. 

The board is currently considering whether to expand to a high school or to open another K–8 school. Meanwhile, the school has requested permission from the School Reform Commission to add 68 seats.

More immediate projects for improving the school include streamlining assessment so that it is more uniform and easier for parents to interpret across grades, increasing students’ international experience by sponsoring trips to other countries for 7th graders, and more comprehensively integrating all parts of the curriculum, including math and science. 

Meanwhile, at lunch, kindergartner Maia Perrault, age six, and her friends recite the Spanish words with the letter “y” they have been learning that day in impeccable accents. Maia said she likes studying Spanish because “we learn new words.” 

When asked if it is hard, she confidently shakes her head – no. 

Independence Charter: basic facts

Independence Charter School was established in 2001 by a group of parents.
Location: 16th and Lombard Streets, Center City
Current enrollment: 747 students from 44 of Philadelphia’s 50 zip codes
Student body:
59% African-American 21% White
14% Latino 3% Asian 3% Mixed race
2% of students are new immigrants (Latino, Indonesian, Chinese, and African)
53% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch
11% of students receive special education services
69% of students are proficient or advanced in reading
78% of students are proficient or advanced in math

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