Olney’s approach: Strict discipline, personal attention

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

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

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.”