October 21 — 10:30 am, 2014

After a surge of new students, school stumbles, then thrives

duckrey pic Photo: Courtesy of David Cohen

Gregory Bonaparte Jr. loved his 5th-grade class at Tanner Duckrey Elementary School.

“Every time it was Friday, I wanted to go back to school,” said the 12-year-old. “That’s where my friends were.”

His disposition changed when he came back for 6th grade. Suddenly, Duckrey had hundreds of new students and practically doubled in size.

Duckrey had felt the impact of the School Reform Commission’s decision in 2013 to shutter 24 schools. It was designated a "receiving school," accepting students who were displaced from schools that closed.

According to Gregory and others who were interviewed, Duckrey’s transition was rocky. They said that the District did not provide enough support and that the principal at the time couldn’t cope well.  

But under new principal David Cohen, who came from a specialized discipline school, things have gotten better, they said. 

Originally, Duckrey was one of 37 schools that Superintendent William Hite and the SRC intended to close in 2013. But the North Philadelphia school was ultimately spared when Quibila Divine, a former District official and sister to School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms, initiated a move to close M.H. Stanton Elementary School instead.

Duckrey was affected nonetheless, as Stanton’s students ended up there. Enrollment increased from about 300 to nearly 600 the following year, a major change that the school wasn’t prepared for.

According to Gregory Bonaparte, disruption, disrespect, and fighting became the norm for a school located in one of the poorest zip codes in the city. 

“I actually liked going to school, but then chaos happened,” he said. “That’s when I went to my dad and said, ‘Can I just leave this school?’”

Gregory contended that some students ignored class work and substitute teachers, spent time talking and playing on their cell phones, bounced basketballs and cursed in the hallways and classrooms, and stole school supplies.

His father, Gregory Bonaparte Sr., took him out of Duckrey and enrolled him at Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School. He said he is now able to socialize and improve his grades.

Sheila Williams, a teacher at Duckrey, said that until 2010, under principal David Baugh, teachers had reliable faculty support and immediate community involvement, despite high rates of student suspension. That weakened after Baugh left and it disappeared completely after the closing scare.

Williams and others said that the leadership didn’t have a plan for dealing with the influx of new students. Bitterness among teachers, parents, and students was never dealt with, the teacher said.  

“Even little kids came in angry,” said Williams. “When you’re coming in angry, it’s hard to learn.”

But Williams also said she could not lay all the blame for the school’s troubles on the principal, who left this summer. In her view, the District didn’t adequately staff the school or provide enough support for the transition. 

PSSA scores for reading and math at all grade levels were below 25 percent in the 2012-13 school year, according to District data for that year. Last year’s scores have not yet been made public.

Then Cohen came to Duckrey in July from Crossroads Academy@Hunting Park, a school for students with disciplinary issues. He had a tough-minded, take-charge approach — and the faculty liked it.

“The sun and the rainbow came out [when he became principal],” said Williams. “I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Williams said Cohen reassured faculty that he would get the school’s climate under control. He restricted parents, who had grown accustomed to entering the building without appointments, from doing so until school started in September. He also changed his entire leadership team except for one person.

“The ones who aren’t on board are going to get on board, because we’re here to learn,” said Cohen.

After spending the summer months devising a plan of action, Cohen held a meeting for prospective volunteers. He then brought the faculty together and went over new policies and procedures that he expected to be enforced throughout the school year.

Cohen rebuilt relationships with Temple University, the Salvation Army, EducationWorks, and other partners that provided new equipment for computer learning centers and TV screens to make the hallways look modern.

Cohen said that when he’s not coordinating with faculty and the community, he patrols the halls and visits classrooms.

“I challenge anyone to come in and see that the school isn’t running quietly and smoothly,” he said.

Parent Uvonka Hudson had considered removing her daughter from Duckrey, but decided against it once she saw how Cohen was running the school.

“[Duckrey] was a run-down school,” said Hudson. “Nobody cared about the students. “But then [Cohen] came in and changed the school around.”

“I hope they let him stay to see this through," Williams added. "There may actually be learning going on.”

 

Payne Schroeder is an intern at the Notebook.

 

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