‘Still hope’ for Jones Middle School students

John Paul Jones Middle School has suffered low test scores, spotty teach­er at­tend­ance and un­safe con­di­tions for years. Now it’s be­ing trans­formed in­to the Mem­ph­is Street Academy Charter School, and many are ex­cited about the fu­ture.

Stu­dents of John Paul Jones Middle School are get­ting an edu­ca­tion makeover.

The school, more com­monly known as Jones, at 2950 Mem­ph­is St., will now be known as the Mem­ph­is Street Academy Charter School at J.P. Jones, or simply the Mem­ph­is Street Academy. The change is the res­ult of a takeover by Amer­ic­an Paradigm Schools, a Phil­adelphia-based non­profit edu­ca­tion man­age­ment or­gan­iz­a­tion.

So far in North­east Phil­adelphia, Amer­ic­an Paradigm has es­tab­lished First Phil­adelphia Pre­par­at­ory Charter School, at 4300 Ta­cony St. and Ta­cony Academy Charter School, at 1330 Rhawn St.

Now, the or­gan­iz­a­tion is turn­ing its at­ten­tion to Jones, which will open as the Mem­ph­is Street Academy in the fall.

Stu­dents, par­ents, and Amer­ic­an Paradigm staff have said that while Jones has been a pil­lar of the com­munity since 1923, the school had ser­i­ous prob­lems, and the over­haul is a wel­come trans­form­a­tion.

Brandon Kil­gore, 12, will be at­tend­ing 7th grade at the Mem­ph­is Street Academy in the fall. In an in­ter­view Ju­ly 19 at First Phil­adelphia Pre­par­at­ory, he said that he is fa­mil­i­ar with the ser­i­ous prob­lems at Jones, as he was bul­lied dur­ing class on more than one oc­ca­sion.

“It was an un­safe place to be,” he said of the school. “It didn’t feel like a safe en­vir­on­ment, it didn’t really feel like any­body cared about the school…as long as the kids were there, they [school staff] really didn’t care.”

Kil­gore’s moth­er, Maria Sol Vega, said she tried to put a stop to the school bul­ly­ing when her son fi­nally told her about the in­cid­ents.

“I, too, was bul­lied when I was young, so I feel his pain,” Vega said. “But I did have a lot of prob­lems [get­ting the situ­ation re­solved]. I was con­stantly hav­ing to go up to the school and con­front the teach­ers.”

Both Vega and Kil­gore said the over­whelm­ing sense at Jones was that both stu­dents and staff alike simply didn’t care. Kil­gore also said he would be­come bored in school, as Jones offered little to no cre­at­ive pro­jects, school trips, or op­por­tun­it­ies for en­gage­ment.

When asked how people would re­spond when he said he at­ten­ded Jones, Kil­gore said the re­sponse was con­sist­ent.

“‘Why does he go there?’” he said people would ask. “I kind of didn’t want to tell them I went to Jones.”

Vega agreed.

“I would get that frowned face, that puzzled look,” she said. “It’s a neigh­bor­hood school that people know has a bad repu­ta­tion.”

There is hope, though, that in the fall, all that will change.

Christine Borelli, new CEO of Mem­ph­is Academy, re­spon­ded con­fid­ently to Vega’s as­sees­ment of Jones.

“It had a bad repu­ta­tion,” she said.

Borelli is end­ing her time as a prin­cip­al of Web­ster Ele­ment­ary School at 3400 Frank­ford Ave. She said some of her Web­ster stu­dents went on to Jones, so she’ll be see­ing them again now at Mem­ph­is Street Academy.

She said the prob­lems at Jones were clear, and poin­ted to ex­tremely low test scores, low teach­er at­tend­ance rates and high num­bers of be­ha­vi­or in­cid­ents.

“The goal [of Mem­ph­is Street Academy] is first and fore­most to make the school a safe haven,” she said. “We need our chil­dren to have a school in their com­munity that they de­serve. These stu­dents should be able to walk out of their front door to a neigh­bor­hood school and re­ceive a qual­ity edu­ca­tion.”

She said it was up­set­ting that Kil­gore be­lieved stu­dents at Jones didn’t care about get­ting a good edu­ca­tion, and called it a mat­ter of per­cep­tion.

“If he didn’t think his edu­ca­tion was val­ued, we only have to hear that one time, and that’s enough for us to un­der­stand that there’s a ser­i­ous need for re­form,” she said.

So what’s in store for Mem­ph­is Street Academy?

Borelli said on Ju­ly 31, Amer­ic­an Paradigm re­moved the met­al bars from win­dows and the chain-locked gates from the halls of the cam­pus.

The barred win­dows and gates made the school “kind of feel like a jail,” Kil­gore said.

The school will also be painted and ren­ov­ated, and stu­dents will re­port to school in Septem­ber – Septem­ber 4 for 5th and 6th grade; Septem­ber 6 for 7th and 8th grade – in the of­fi­cial Mem­ph­is Street Academy school uni­form.

Borelli said the uni­form is a point of pride that will be strictly up­held.

“It’s im­port­ant for them to al­ways be look­ing like they are proud to be in uni­form,” she said, adding that as Mem­ph­is Street Academy does not bring in stu­dents by bus, many will be walk­ing through the neigh­bor­hood or tak­ing pub­lic trans­port­a­tion to school, so im­age is im­port­ant.

Kil­gore said he is ex­cited about wear­ing the school uni­form, and glad about the fact that there is a more cli­mate-spe­cif­ic sum­mer­time uni­form as well.

Borelli said the school will of­fer its 800 stu­dents 30 grade teach­ers, two art teach­ers, two mu­sic teach­ers, one sign lan­guage teach­er, one phys­ic­al edu­ca­tion teach­er, two aut­ist­ic sup­port teach­ers, and two emo­tion­al sup­port teach­ers. Paradigm is cur­rently in the pro­cess of hir­ing all-new staff.

The school already has over 20 con­firmed pro­grams for its stu­dents, in­clud­ing varsity and ju­ni­or varsity sports as well as mu­sic and art pro­grams.

“I’m very, very ex­cited,” Kil­gore said of the new aca­dem­ic and ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies. “I’m think­ing about try­ing maybe all of them!”

Borelli said the school will also of­fer a ment­or pro­gram, as well as a stu­dent-to-stu­dent “buddy sys­tem.” These pro­grams, she said, cre­ate what Paradigm holds in high re­gard — a “caring school com­munity.”

Vega said she was very im­pressed when she toured the oth­er Amer­ic­an Paradigm Schools cam­puses.

“These chil­dren were happy, wanted to come [to school] every day, and wanted to learn. What I saw in them is what I want to see in my child,” she said. “I know for a long time my son has wanted that, and I know for sure he’s go­ing to be get­ting that.”

Kil­gore said that he knows he will be proud to call him­self a Mem­ph­is Street Academy stu­dent, and is ex­cited for the changes to come.

Borelli said the staff is ex­cited as well, and wants to be sure Mem­ph­is Street Academy rep­res­ents a prom­ising look to the fu­ture.

“The mes­sage to the com­munity is, ‘Jones is no longer as it was,’” she said. “We are chan­ging.”

Vega said that on Ju­ly 19, Kil­gore shared his en­thu­si­asm about his edu­ca­tion with her.

“Mom,” he said, “There is still hope for the kids at Mem­ph­is Street Academy.”

Learn more about Mem­ph­is Street Academy and oth­er Amer­ic­an Paradigm schools at www.ap-schools.org.

Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­on@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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