Parents and caregivers of students enrolled in the School District of Philadelphia can send their children off to the first week of school knowing that schools in the district are a bit safer than they were last year.
In fact, certain schools have taken enough effective anti-violence measures to warrant being taken off of the Persistently Dangerous Schools list. The controversial list is released annually by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and only contains schools located in Philadelphia’s public school district. Six district schools – Edison High School, Fels High School, Northeast High School, Sayre High School, Shaw Middle School and South Philadelphia High School – were removed by the education department from the 2012–2013 list.
That represents a 40 percent drop in the number of schools on the list.
That leaves the district with six schools on the list for this year: Beeber Middle School, Douglas High School, Frankford High School, Kensington Business High School, Lincoln High School and Strawberry Mansion High School.
Violence appears to be trending downward district-wide, as officials have tried to tamp down violent events through implementing an aggressive zero-tolerance policy and other defusing initiatives, such as the anti-bullying campaign.
Violent incidences experienced a 4 percent decline; there were 4,220 reported violent incidences during the 2010–2011 school year, while last year, that number dropped to 4,059. The per-100 rate among students also experienced a moderate decrease, from 2.71 to 2.66, respectively.
The district-wide Violent Crime Index shows a decrease in just about every major category. Abductions and attempts were down 36 percent, assaults down 6 percent, arson down 35 percent, robberies down 8 percent and weapon possession offenses were down 8 percent.
Conversely, the district experienced an 8 percent increase in drug and alcohol violations and a disturbing 38 percent increase in the number of reported “moral offenses.”
One such school to realize such gains is the Master Charter Schools-operated Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School, which was firmly entrenched on the dangerous schools list. Last year, community leaders approached Mastery officials with pleas for the education management organization to turn around Gratz High; a year later, the school has been removed from the Persistently Dangerous Schools list – a list it has appeared on twice since the state began the list with the 2006–2007 school year.
Gratz has also doubled the aggregate scores on several state exams.
“We’re thrilled with the progress Gratz has made, especially since, unfortunately, Gratz had a series of down years and was known for its violence,” said Mastery Schools CEO Scott Gordon. “After years of declining test scores, we’ve doubled those scores here. Those are incredible gains in a short period of time.”
While it takes at least three years for many turnaround organizations to achieve that level of success, Gordon chalks up Gratz’s rapid improvement to the students themselves.
“The first job was getting the students to want more. To get them to recognize that they weren’t getting a fair shake, and that they weren’t getting what they needed to succeed in college or their next step in life,” Gordon said, noting that at first, students were leery of Mastery’s efforts because Gratz students were used to a new year bringing a new program and new, although unfulfilled promises. “Students had to take responsibility. We do have a strict, no-tolerance policy, and on a positive note, we want the students to achieve at the highest level.
“We get them to believe that they can go to college and be anything they want if they put their minds to it,” Gordon continued. “We’ve got great students who set the bar very high, and they are as competitive if not more competitive than any other students in the state. They are aggressive in terms of scoring the same as their suburban peers.”