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April 2013 Vol. 20. No. 5 Focus on Getting to Graduation

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Olney’s approach: Strict discipline, personal attention

Under new management, an ASPIRA-led high school tackles the Latino dropout problem.

By by Connie Langland on Apr 8, 2013 02:40 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Olney’s Success Academy is an in-house program with strict rules for students who have been disruptive. These include how students should walk down the hall, hands behind their backs.

Sandwiches piled high on a platter, a fresh vegetable tray, pizza, sodas, cake – all for nine young people, most with Latino surnames, most male, who were the center of attention on a recent day at Olney Charter High School.

Their achievement: showing up.

“We’ve begun to see some of our truant youngsters coming to school on a regular basis. And just like we harass them when they’re out, we want to show our enthusiasm now that they’re attending,” said principal Jose Lebron.

And a slice of pizza is the least of it.

Olney is operated by the charter-management arm of the nonprofit ASPIRA under the District’s Renaissance school turnaround program. The main goal is to improve academic achievement, starting with keeping all students, many of them Latino, on track to graduation.

The task is huge: Across the city, only 49 percent of Latino males graduated high school on time in 2012; Latino females did somewhat better, at 60 percent, according to School District figures. On the bright side, that’s a 10-point gain over the 2007 graduation rate.

“I’m trying to improve,” said student Steven Ellis-Herrara, “because I want to get my diploma and get ahead.” 

Two years ago, there were two Olneys, East and West, in the same massive building, separated only by locked doors. Mayhem ruled; academically, performance was dismal. 

A new course

After the takeover, in the summer of 2011, ASPIRA unlocked the doors, refurbished the building, hired its own teaching staff, and set a new course: 

  • Safety is a top priority, bolstered by 32 security officers. 
  • Disruptive students are assigned to the Success Academy, a school-within-a-school program with strict discipline plus instruction. 
  • Over-age, under-credited students are sent to the Excel Academy to accrue credits toward graduation as speedily as possible.
  • Teachers and support staff, including two truancy officers, blanket students with both opportunities and timely interventions.

The goal is to boost enthusiasm, attendance and achievement while reducing violence, truancy and dropouts. 

Last year, the school’s on-time graduation rate hovered at 50 percent, according to the District. Olney now enrolls 1,660 students, 55 percent Latino, 39 percent Black, 4 percent Asian. But as students get older, the size of their grade gets smaller; the senior class has just over 200 students, half of them Latino. 

Other schools have initiatives to promote Latino graduation rates. Congreso operates a program called Exito (Success) at Thomas Edison High School. The program provides afterschool activities including homework help for 9th and 10th graders at risk of dropping out and uses case managers to provide supports for individual students. 

At Olney, where the arrival of ASPIRA triggered an influx of Latinos, programming aims to meet the needs of all students, said Lebron, a veteran District principal, most recently at Edison. 

To a visitor, Olney seems well-functioning. Students are well-behaved; safety officers patrol every hallway; many students stay after school for athletics and clubs. Yet the streets intrude.

One March Monday, Lebron got bad news from over the weekend: One boy had been shot five times, another had witnessed a homicide, and two others had beat up a teacher at a nearby elementary school.

“The negative force that has existed in the community for years is still strong. That is the challenge,” said Lebron. “We are telling the kids, there’s a different, a better way.”

Testing, attendance and suspension indicators show progress over the Olney East/West setup but also the need for more work. Only about 3 in 10 students met state math and reading goals for 11th graders last year. Daily attendance is at about 83 percent. By mid-March, there had been 433 suspensions, far more than all of last year but significantly fewer than previous years. Nine students have been expelled this year. Olney’s zero tolerance policy means more suspensions, said Lebron. 

Strict discipline

If Olney is relatively free of disruption, much of the credit accrues to the program in the basement: the Success Academy. It is run by Success Schools, an alternative-education provider that runs similar programs at ASPIRA’s John B. Stetson Charter School, Mastery Gratz High School (at an off-campus site), the K-8 Young Scholars Frederick Douglass, and elsewhere.

In most District schools, chronically disruptive students are repeatedly suspended and sometimes expelled. At Olney, if the misbehavior persists, the youth is assigned to Success. Last year, 163 students in grades 9 through 12 received instruction and strict supervision in the program. All 22 seniors graduated, said director Michael Esposito. None was expelled, and “none dropped out on our watch.” 

This year there’s been one expulsion and one suspension for off-campus incidents; the program’s current attendance rate is about 82 percent, with a roster of 117 in grades 9, 10 and 11 “and growing,” Esposito said. There’s good news: 31 students improved behavior in the first semester and transferred back into the main program. 

Other students don’t want to leave.

Joel Sanchez describes himself as a “problem child” in past years, hanging around “negative people.” Last fall, as a 9th grader, he lasted two months at Edison with poor grades and bad behavior and, he said, was on the verge of dropping out.

At Success, he has gained privileges – what he calls “status.”

“This program keeps me on task. And you don’t have kids running the hallways, coming out of class, tragedy stuff,” Sanchez said. “I just want to say to my family, ‘Look how far I have got.’”

Sanchez, Alexander Vazquez, and Gian Carlos, all 15 and in 9th grade, with Raymond Morales, 16, a 10th grader, offered reasons why some of their peers drop out. 

“They think about having the girls, about being cool. But they can’t get their job – they’re not 16 yet. They didn’t pass school,” said Sanchez.

“Another thing is drugs,” said Vazquez. “They drop out just to go work on the block, on the corner.”

Carlos said the Success staff had taught him “how to talk to people, how to avoid problems and not talk back … also, how to treat your family, your mom.”

Said Morales: “I used to be very disrespectful. I used to pick fights and get in a lot of trouble.” His goal is to attend college in computer programming. “To get a job I need that high school diploma, and then go to college.”

A first visit to Success can be disquieting. The facilities look sharp, with fresh paint and inspirational posters. But students are required to walk silently with their hands folded behind their backs—a sight that can be jarring. 

For parents concerned about the multitude of rules and isolation from peers, Esposito offers assurances. “Parents have been skeptical, but I let them know it’s not necessarily a permanent placement.”

The program works, he said, because the students “respond to the structure and the discipline. Some of these kids, what they walk out of every morning, what they’re walking into at night, they have no clue what’s going to happen to them. There’s a sense of direction here.

“Does every single kid get fixed? I’d be lying to you,” said Esposito. “But our success rate is good.”

Countering frustration

The Excel Academy offers academics to another challenging group: youth ages 16 to 21 who are at risk for dropping out for financial reasons or because of incarceration, pregnancy or other family situations. Excel is run off-campus by Camelot Schools, which operates two other such accelerated programs for the District. 

Sadiqa Lucas, executive director, said some of her Latino students had left school out of frustration. “Latino students have a lot of pride,” Lucas said. “They don’t want to go to a school where the school just wants them to sit in a [nonfunctioning] classroom, where they’re going to be bullied, where the teachers don’t know them by name.” 

Both Excel and ASPIRA reassure them, she said: “We want you to get your diploma, and then we want to know what you’re going to do next. What’s your plan? What are your goals?”

Daily attendance among 110 students is at 88 percent, she said. She projects that 70 of 78 seniors will graduate in June.

Lebron can cite a lengthy list of programs aimed at truancy and dropout prevention.

To give them extra attention, 9th graders are clustered on one floor, which also minimizes interaction with sometimes intimidating upperclassmen. 

Teams of teachers, including those at Success and Excel, review each student’s academic performance and behavior once a week, giving each a rating of “positive,” “neutral” or “concern.” Those ratings are posted, names included, for all to see. Interventions include contacting a parent or guardian. 

There are dances, dress-down days, and other activities aimed at promoting good behavior. Clubs range from debate to fishing. Honor-roll students get recognition and pizza. A faith-based truancy prevention group draws ministers and social workers; there are internships and mentoring. The Cradle to Grave program, including visits to a prison and a morgue, aims to shake sense into obstinate youth. 

Lebron was blunt with the students being treated to pizza for improved attendance. 

“If you are going to go out and make a difference in the world and in your lives, you need to be here,” he said. “You’ve got a slew of people in this building to help you. That’s what we’re here for.”

About the Author

Connie Langland is a freelance writer on education issues.

Comments (74)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 29, 2013 8:23 am
Jose Lebron is one of the Best . I credit the success of the Olney program to him. The students know his heart is in this, and that is why they comply with all of the other programs.Kudos to you, Dr.Lebron. .
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 2, 2013 7:21 am
Dr. Lebron has always been one of the most highly respected principals in Philadelphia. Getting an opportunity to meet Great public servants like him is one of the best aspects of being an educator in Philadelphia with such a diverse community. While I never had the opportunity to work closely with him, I did have several opportunities to discuss with him his leadership beliefs and learn from him how great strides were accomplished by Edison under his leadership. I assimilated many of his ideas into my leadership style. I can not say this strongly enough -- Leadership Matters.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 2, 2013 12:17 pm
I agree with you Rich. Leadership matters. My question regards the brain drain associated with leaders who have left the district to run charter schools. I know of former principals who leave the district, collect a full pension, then collect a full salary as principals in charter schools. I have been told this is perfectly legal because their salary does not pay into PSERS. Can you or anyone from the notebook address this? If it is true, is it true for all charter principals? Does the public know this? I cannot even count the ways we in traditional public schools are being screwed by reform efforts. I really hope I am wrong about this.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 2, 2013 1:21 pm
You are not wrong about this. I do not know exactly how many former principals are doing that, but it is not difficult to do. Charter school employees are, by the Charter School Law, supposed to pay into the retirement fund and are eligible for retirement benefits. And, a retired employee can collect retirement and work as a principal in a regular public school or a charter school under so called "emergency circumstances." Under PSERS it is illegal to collect retirement benefits and work as a principal or as a teacher in PA under normal circumstances. However, the way around it is like this: Rich Migliore is retired collecting retirement. He then creates a contractual arrangement to provide "contracted management services" to a charter school. As long as I am not "employed by" the charter school, I can do anything a principal can do and still collect both my "contracted for compensation" and my retirement. I can also go to Jersey and work full time in any school and still receive my retirement pay from Pennsylvania. Some of those arrangements may not actually be "perfectly legal" but we do not know because of the lack of transparency in charter school accounting. As for "the brain drain," most good principals retired because they could not stand the school district ridiculousness any more or met adverse circumstances and just threw up our hands and said enough is enough. Many charter school founders, employees and service providers have left because of frustration with the district and found better opportunities in the charter school sector. Some of us have found other ways to serve our community and our schoolchildren. May I go fishing now? I am really trying to be retired.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2013 5:17 pm
can also go to Jersey and work full time in any school and still receive my retirement pay from Pennsylvania.>> If you reside in NJ your pension is taxed though, right?
Submitted by Joan Taylor on April 9, 2013 9:22 am
You can't blame a principal for taking advantage of a legal opportunity, but this practice seems fiscally unsound and needs some sunshine. It's true that the district has lost experienced talent through its inept and punitive practices.
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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 2, 2013 2:04 pm
If the SRC truly wants to improve schools, they need to invest in effective leadership. Hearing that great leaders are collecting their pensions and moving to the Charters to save the day is disheartening. It seems so manipulative of tax payers money. another example of corporate take over at the expense of fair labor practices.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2013 2:04 pm
I think it is interesting that employees of the school might tell a different story about the Success Academy. One where students are not allowed pencils, pens, schoolbags, etc. One where they are put in rooms and told to fight. One where those who do not comply with the rules in the academy are literally put out onto the street. Talk to some of the parents of those who have been through the Success Academy and you might get a different story, especially parents of special education students.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2013 4:53 pm
You mean the "basement"-lol. I don't think the state would approve of the current practices that take place.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2013 4:18 pm
The sad thing is, I think the state might not make too much of a fuss about it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2013 7:48 pm
"I think it is interesting that employees of the school might tell a different story about the Success Academy. One where students are not allowed pencils, pens, schoolbags, etc. One where they are put in rooms and told to fight. One where those who do not comply with the rules in the academy are literally put out onto the street. Talk to some of the parents of those who have been through the Success Academy and you might get a different story, especially parents of special education students." All of this is completely false. I don't know where you get your information from, but it someone who either does know the truth or someone who is who is purposely twisting the truth.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2013 7:21 pm
I doubt that people are colluding to make that up.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 14, 2013 10:20 am
I work at the school; I know what I am talking about. I also know there are people who do not want to see us succeed. Have you set foot in Olney?
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Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on April 9, 2013 5:33 am
Success Schools is highly effective in their practices. They are similar, but not the same, as programs used in Camelot, Glen Mills, etc. They operate in schools all over the country so they would not jeopardize their company by participating in these acts. Unless you document these things occurring with specifics, or have some actual former students come forward, why spread rumors?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 9, 2013 9:59 am
I should point out, just for the sake of argument, that Glen Mills and Camelot are both disciplinary schools, not high schools. They are not programs running in the basement of a neighborhood schools. Also, Camelot is not the best example to use either as allegations have been made in the past about how students are handled in those schools. http://www.caica.org/PHILLY_School_firm_hired_to_run_schools_has_ties_to... You're right, rumors are rumors, but if these claims are being made by people who know such as employees,past employees, parents, students, etc, maybe there is something to them.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 9, 2013 6:46 am
For what I eead, not sure if this is a school or prison... 32 security.. Really
Submitted by Joan Taylor on April 9, 2013 9:34 am
I worked for Dr. Lebron at MYA five years ago, and I can vouch for his effectiveness. He was a calming presence among our kids, well-organized, and appreciative of his staff. I worry when I hear incidents recounted about the underbelly of many of our schools. I myself have no knowledge of Olney, but I taught for many years at some tough schools, and I know that it is close to impossible to have an honest, public discussion of the day-to-day realities of these schools. Posting anonymous comments doesn't help this discussion, and while I understand the concern about retaliation which results in anonymous postings, unsubstantiated charges won't lead to responsible reform. I sometimes wish we had cameras running 24/7 and aired them publicly...but we don't, and we can't, so we need to have information about our schools that is reliable and objectively delivered. I want to hear what is going on in our schools, but I need to know that I am hearing these accounts from reliable sources.
Submitted by Doctor Mantiss (not verified) on August 18, 2013 5:47 pm
Is this a press release? Why no mention of ASPIRA's very expensive union-busting effort?
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