Now sharing a building, 2 schools seek collaboration

After a successful battle to keep Beeber Middle School open, parents are a little uneasy that SLA@Beeber moved in, too. But the goal is mutual benefit.

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

Dimner Beeber Middle School was headed for extinction.

Since it was barely a quarter full and posted poor academic indicators, the District planned to close it and send a few hundred Beeber 7th and 8th graders to nearby Overbrook High School.

But for Raynae Bosley, a rising 8th grader, Beeber was working.

In 7th grade, she said, “all of the teachers didn’t give up on me and they kept getting me up to the next level.”

“I really didn’t want the school to be closed at all.”

She was not alone. The Beeber community, including Raynae and her mother Rayette, launched a fierce and successful campaign last spring to keep the school open.

But the Bosleys are still concerned about the school’s future because Beeber’s rescue came with a catch. They were never formally notified that the middle school would be sharing the building this fall with the first cohort of 9th graders attending a new satellite campus of Science Leadership Academy, a popular special admission high school.

“I believe a lot of the parents were hoodwinked because we weren’t told until after the fact … that there was going to be another school pretty much renting space with our students,” said Katherine Stokes, another Beeber mother.

Stokes believes SLA is moving into Beeber’s Wynnefield neighborhood to test the location for expanding its enrollment and ultimately push Beeber out.

“I truly believe this is probably the last year for this building and this school as Beeber itself,” Stokes said.

“We fought long and hard to keep this school open, not knowing that this was in the works. So we basically saved the school for someone else.”

Superintendent William Hite focused attention on Beeber on opening day in September, when he chose to escort one of its students to school in the morning.

A study in contrasts

Beeber, in a stately and sturdy 1930s building, started out as a junior high school, with a 7th, 8th and 9th grade. This is just what it will have next year, although in two distinct schools with different demographics and different educational approaches.

The building sits in a pleasant, almost bucolic neighborhood, surrounded by neat twins and row houses and just a block away from parts of Fairmount Park. Nevertheless, it has the statistics associated with a failing urban school.

Test scores have been mostly below those of the District as a whole, although 7th and 8th graders did better than entering 6th graders. (This year, the school no longer has a 6th grade.)

Beeber was once on the city’s persistently dangerous schools list, and last year almost all its students – 95 percent – qualified for free and reduced price lunch. Its enrollment, almost entirely African American, has been plunging, largely due to the lure of charter schools. Since 2010-11, it fell from nearly 500 students to just over 250 last year. The building can hold 1,100.

SLA, on the other hand, which operates in partnership with the Franklin Institute, has become one of the District’s most popular schools in the eight years since its founding. It is known for its interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum, in which students pose and answer essential questions. Its test scores are high, and its student body encompasses the races and ethnic groups of the city as a whole.

SLA is gaining a national reputation – Microsoft founder Bill Gates has visited the school – and it holds a major annual conference on educational technology called EduCon. It has far more applicants than slots in its Center City campus, which enrolls fewer than 500 students.

“The whole impetus for [SLA@Beeber] was that so many kids were coming and interviewing and we had so few seats,” said SLA founder and main campus principal Chris Lehmann. SLA had 800 students on its waiting list – students deemed suitable and qualified for whom there was no room.

Plus, Beeber’s location in West Philadelphia makes it easier for more students from other parts of the city to get there.

“Traditionally, that is not a neighborhood with magnet schools,” Lehmann said.

The staffs at both schools are hoping that the co-location will prove mutually beneficial and have had some conversations about how the schools might work together.

But there is still a lot of uncertainty. And with the District’s funding problems and instability, there has been little chance to hash out ideas.

“We have the opportunity to bring together two distinct schools … for collaboration in powerful ways,” said Lehmann. But, it is “a tough conversation to have at a time when schools aren’t sure which teachers are going to be in the building.”

Collaboration is ‘paramount’

Current Beeber teachers have ideas for the schools moving forward together, most of them based on the hope that the older SLA students can be role models for the Beeber students.

“My hope with SLA in the building [is that they will] inspire our kids to push harder academically to possibly be admitted,” said Beeber special education teacher Bethany McCabe.

SLA admits students based on test scores, grades, and disciplinary record, but also based on interviews to make sure they understand the school’s approach to learning. They have privileges and opportunities, such as a one-to-one laptop-to-student ratio, that Beeber students do not.

McCabe hopes that these new elements in the building will motivate her students. She believes incorporating project-based learning into Beeber’s curriculum “would be great” and hopes teachers will have the opportunity to learn about this from their SLA peers.

Chris Johnson, the principal of SLA@Beeber, sees professional development for the teachers as a distinct opportunity.

“If Beeber staff wants to participate in our professional development, that’s not a problem,” he said.

But he was quick to add that “if folks think we are going to take our program and put it in place at Beeber … I don’t know if that’s going to work due to a thousand different reasons.”

Either way, these will be two distinct schools. SLA will occupy the third floor, Beeber the first two. SLA and Beeber students will most likely not be eating lunch together.

“Our students need to know that these are two separate schools,” said Beeber principal Joseph Starinieri. One obvious difference that students will notice: Beeber has a dress code, and SLA does not. “At this point in middle school, to get that privilege, [they] have to home in on skills to get into that school,” he said.

Ron Morris, a long-time Beeber administrator who will be a teacher in the fall, sees cultivating a strong relationship between the two communities as paramount, especially given the differences in the student demographics.

“It would behoove us, before things get strained, to work together, to collaborate,” he said. Morris worries some “jealousy issues” may arise between the two different communities.

So, “before that even happens, we as instructors have to come up with a plan … for kids to do something together … and make it seem like a family even though there are two different programs,” Morris said.

Incorporating families may be the key. Stokes, whose daughter Maiya Jones is entering Beeber’s 8th grade, said she would like to see the two schools organize public meetings.

“I would love to take the initiative to get an open dialogue. People are generally standoffish when they don’t know what’s going on,” Stokes noted. “I would hope to be an integral part of building that bridge and hoping it’s an inviting atmosphere.”

Stokes and her daughter, who aspires to a nursing career, are already scouting high schools and said they would at least explore whether to add SLA@Beeber to the list.

Raynae Bosley, who plays the trumpet and enjoys singing and acting, has her sights set on Central or Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Could SLA be a possibility? She’s not thinking about that right now.

“I’m fine with it,” she said of SLA’s co-location in the building, “as long as I’m still going to get the help and nobody is going to be giving up on me.”