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August 29, 2014, 8:08 am

Charter schools showing promise

Progress in safety, learning seen under new management


African-American students throughout the state continue to struggle with standardized tests, as evidenced by the results of their performance on the 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, but there are some beacons of hope coming from Philadelphia charters.

According to the test results, released Thursday by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, only 52.2 percent of Pennsylvania’s African-American students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the standardized test. A slightly higher number (56.8 percent) reached the benchmark in math. However, some Philadelphia charter schools are showing signs that a turnaround could be near.

It wasn’t that long ago that the only thing North Philadelphia’s Stetson Middle School was known for was being a regular on the list of persistently dangerous schools. Equally abysmal was school’s academic performance. In 2010, just 28 percent of the students scored proficient or advanced in reading. Math scores were even worse, with just 25 percent at proficient or advanced.

However, before the start of the 2010–11 school year, ASPIRA became Stetson’s Renaissance turnaround operator. And with very little turnover in the student body, according to ASPIRA, things at Stetson appear to be turning around.

The 2011 reading scores at Stetson increased to 50 percent, a 22 percentage point jump from 2010. Math scores improved as well, jumping eight percentage points to 33 percent of the students now at proficient and advanced. 

“We are all thrilled about what’s taking place at Stetson,” said ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon. “It is a step in the right direction — a very big step.”

When a charter provider prepares to take over a school in Philadelphia or anywhere else, the main thrust of the company is usually changing the culture that previously existed there. This starts with children — they often change the dress code to something more formal — and branches out to the parents and the community.

When ASPIRA took over Stetson last summer just 20 kids left the school, so the student population is basically the same as it was when the District operated it. Before Stetson showed up there were 500 suspensions and 20 expulsions. Last year the school didn’t suspend a single student.

“In the District, when a kid misbehaves and does something that merits his expulsion, they send him to an alternative school; we don’t do that,” said Calderon. “We won’t send them home to take a three- or four-day vacation. We do character development. Our kids know that it’s not OK to bully or misbehave. We teach them how to conduct themselves.”

Other charters posted successful numbers as well. Harrity, Mann and Smedley Elementary, operated by Mastery, all posted double-digit gains in math. Harrity students showed the biggest gain of the three — 17 percent — and saw 55 percent of its students at proficient and advanced.

Other charter operators with double-digit improvements included Douglass Elementary, operated by Scholar Academies. Math scores at Douglass jumped 12 percent. And Daroff Elementary, operated by Universal, also saw its math scores jump 14 points.

Calderon says that ASPIRA’S philosophy is at the core of its success.

“We’re giving them the tools, not teaching them for the test — we refuse to do that,” Calderon said. “It’s giving them the critical thinking so they can actually analyze a situation and make a decision. That’s what we’re teaching our kids; that’s how we’re training our teachers. Some people have given up. We are just getting started.”

Overall, students across the state showed small improvement, with scores inching up in math (76.3 percent to 77.1) and reading (72.0 to 73.5). Conversely, the percentage of schools meeting state standards dropped in 2011 from 82.6 percent in 2010 to 75.1 percent.

The higher school failure rate can be explained by the fact that the state increased its benchmark for schools from 56 percent to 67 percent for students passing in math and 63 percent to 72 percent passing in reading.

While the continued poor performance by African-American students continues to be troublesome, all the news is not bad. Right here in Philadelphia some charter schools are showing dramatic improvement.


Staff writer John N. Mitchell can be reached at (215) 893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .