After troubled beginnings, Camelot Schools graduates look forward to bright futures

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

By Brad Gibson and Monika Zaleska

“You decided to become part of the solution. You decided not to become a dropout statistic,” Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told the graduating class of four alternative schools run by Camelot Wednesday morning during their commencement at Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ackerman was the keynote speaker at the combined graduation of 272 students from Excel North, Excel South, Camelot Academy, and Shallcross Academy.

Camelot schools are privately managed in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia to help students who are significantly behind in their academics, who are in danger of dropping out, or who struggle with behavioral issues.

Most of the graduates were from Excel North and South, accelerated programs for students who are over-age and undercredited. This year, Ackerman expanded the Excel program from 250 to more than 600 students.

Shallcross and Camelot Academies are disciplinary schools.

In her address, Ackerman praised the students for overcoming obstacles on their way to graduation, sharing with them her favorite Edward A. Guest poem, “Don’t Quit.”

According to District calculations, in 2009, students at the accelerated schools accounted for 1.16 percentage points of the six-year graduation rate of 60.75 percent in Philadelphia.

Ackerman credited Camelot for contributing to this growth and for the opportunity these schools present for students who might otherwise become one of the four out of ten students who never finish high school.

“The difference between the school I went to before [Community Academy Charter], and Camelot, is the teachers here push you,” said Excel North student Abigail Echavarria.

“The teachers here know you’re going through some hard times and they still push you. They say, ‘Don’t give up, I’m here [to help].’”

Echavarria is attending LaSalle University’s Academic Discovery Program, which gives students academic and financial assistance.

Almost all of the graduates are pursuing post-secondary programs, be it vocational programs or at a university. Some are going into military service. At the commencement, the U.S. Army awarded scholarships totaling over $500,000 to seven students.

Ashley Larwa, also a graduate of Excel North, dropped out of St. Hubert’s Catholic High School and never thought she would see her diploma. Camelot, she says, embraced her, and was more understanding of her personal struggles.

Now on her way to community college, she plans to complete her studies at Jefferson University.

Larwa shares this advice for other students: “The teachers are always right,” she said. “They know what’s out in the real world. Listen to what they have to say because in the end they’re always right. It’s inevitable.”

Excel South graduate and former Shallcross student Jacquil Cherry addressed his fellow classmates.

“There were times when the world fell on our shoulders. But we pushed through it. We persevered. Now it is time to see the world as we want to see it,” he said.

Cherry, who is going to The Thompson Institute in the fall to become an electrician, advises incoming Camelot students to embrace this second chance.

“Get here. Don’t play. Take advantage of your education,” he said.