Accelerated schools keep focus on individualized help (Philadelphia)

Date: February 4, 2014

The Notebook

Jan 31 2014

Ombudsman South student Dontey Seong (left) says he gets the support he needs there. Teacher Brooke Monaghan (right) values the alternative school’s emphasis on building relationships.

by Paul Jablow

Before graduating from Neumann University last year, Brooke Monaghan did her student teaching at Haverford Middle School, which she had attended herself.

She liked it there but sensed that she wanted her first job to be different. “I saw that in a big middle school, students can be embarrassed,” she says.

So Monaghan went to a place about as different from Haverford as you can find in the area’s educational world: the Ombudsman South accelerated school, located in a storefront in a South Philadelphia strip mall.

The school is one of 13 in Philadelphia that takes over-age, undercredited youth who have dropped out of school and tries to get them back on track for graduation.

Here, Monaghan teaches a classroom English course, advises 30 students, and moves among the students plowing through computerized courses to guide, encourage, and gently cajole.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” she says. “The students feel more comfortable asking for help. They’re not asking a question in front of 20 other students. You can really build relationships.”

Principal Austin Gee says he is happy to have Monaghan on his staff but is concerned about the workload she has to carry. The school has 90 students. “This year we went from four teachers to three,” he says. “Last year it was a lot easier to check on a kid.”

Accelerated schools, which enroll about 2,000 students citywide, are run by private providers under contract with the School District. Several administrators interviewed tell the same story: Reduced allocations have made their job more difficult, and they don’t know how long they can maintain quality.

“It’s hard, but it’s not crazy ridiculous,” says David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia, which operates El Centro de Estudiantes, in Kensington. “I worry about burnout. It’s going to be tough to keep people.”

Marcus Delgado, CEO of One Bright Ray, which operates Fairhill Community High School in Kensington, says that as the District struggles with major budget issues, problems are also passed on to the accelerated schools in the form of students who have received inadequate counseling and other services.

“What we’re experiencing this year is unlike any other year,” Delgado says. “The emotional and mental health of our students has been really, really bad.”

Anger and drug issues are worse, he says. “They’re coming from schools where there were no boundaries. This is the population that feels like it’s going to be forgotten again.”

The school’s staff psychotherapist concurs. “They come here under stress,” says Suzette Hunt. “They haven’t been able to see the counselor at their previous school. We get the backlash from the cuts.”

The per-student allocation at Fairhill was cut this year from $10,000 to $8,750 per pupil, Delgado says. The school was asked to increase its enrollment from 327 to 400, which kept the overall budget up, but at the cost of increasing class size from 25 to 30.

The school added a teacher but can no longer afford a nurse.

“It’s a huge difference,” Delgado says. “We have a lot of kids with medical issues. Mostly asthma. The number of times we’ve had to call an ambulance is ridiculous.”

The accelerated schools were set up in 2004 through a partnership between the District and Project U-Turn, a citywide coalition dedicated to reducing the number of dropouts and increasing the graduation rate. An outside evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research in 2011 indicated that they were making a difference: Students in accelerated schools were more likely to graduate than comparable students in traditional schools, although the rate was still below 30 percent.

Fairhill alone has graduated over 500 students since 2011, Delgado says, including 52 in December.

But observers say that the reduced funding allocations have taken a toll. And the District’s Re-engagement Center, the usual first stop for a dropout looking to get back on track, has been hard-hit as well.

Justin Green, program manager of the center, says they have gone from a staff of more than 20 five years ago to three now: himself and two college student interns.

One of the Center’s main jobs is to guide a potential student to the school with the best fit, an important step given the schools’ wide variance in atmosphere, teaching style and location. At one time, specialists from the Department of Human Services and the Office of Mental Health did diagnostic interviews and made referrals for social services. Not any longer. The center also used to administer the TABE (Tests of Adult Basic Education), which was also valuable in student placement. No more.

Nor can the center afford to do post-placement follow-ups.

“We have to take more of a cookie-cutter approach now,” says Green, who is widely praised for his work under trying circumstances. “But we don’t have any choice. You have to stay passionate and committed.”

Last year, he says, about 2,300 students passed through the center, and he was at least able to interview each one to assess why they had dropped out and what they needed to get back on track.

The funding cuts are driving the schools to seek outside support. Bromley says he recently spent two days with an official of the American Honda Foundation, which made El Centro one of eight finalists for a grant of about $50,000. “That’s one position right there,” says Bromley, who lost a school counselor and a postsecondary counselor in the most recent cutbacks.

Luis Lugo (left), who came to Fairhill Community High School after dropping out of a cyber charter, talks with staff psychotherapist Suzette Hunt. “They come here under stress,” she says. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)

Two ex-dropouts who are sticking with it are Dontey Seong at Ombudsman South and Luis Lugo at Fairhill. While many accelerated school students arrive with crushing personal situations – pregnancy and homelessness are not uncommon – a common thread runs through almost all their stories: They didn’t get the individual attention they needed.

“There were just too many kids in the class,” says Seong, 18, who dropped out of Furness High School after freshman year. “Here I get help when I need it.” Seong, the son of Cambodian immigrants, says, “I want to be the first one in my family to get a diploma” in the United States.

“I want this for them,” he says. “But I also want it for myself.”

Lugo came to Fairhill after dropping out of a cyber charter school.

“You couldn’t move from your spot until the day was over,” says Lugo, 17. “You could Google the answers. I wasn’t learning anything.” (Delgado says Lugo was one of several students who had dropped out of cyber schools.)

Lugo, who wants to be a music producer when he graduates – hopefully in August – says he found the atmosphere at Fairhill more welcoming than at other schools.

“It’s ‘no drama’ here,” he says. “You can joke around with people. I feel this is my home.”

Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook.

This story will appear in the forthcoming print edition focusing on keeping students engaged, due out next week.

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