No longer an 'F' for Fels

— So you think Fels High School is a haven for vi­ol­ence and trouble­makers? Not any­more. Just ask the stu­dents, the prin­cip­al, the loc­al po­lice com­mand­er and oth­ers who are in the know.

Shawn McGuigan, Fals High School prin­cip­al, says that there is stat­ist­ic­al data that proves his no-tol­er­ance policy works in re­du­cing crim­in­al be­ha­vi­or on school prop­erty, Tues­day, March 20, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. He says tru­ancy has dropped from 71 per­cent to 31 per­cent this year. (Maria Pouch­nikova)


Ed­it­or’s Note: In this first of two parts, the North­east Times ex­am­ines ef­forts at Samuel Fels High School to bol­ster its aca­dem­ic suc­cess and over­come its repu­ta­tion as a dif­fi­cult place to gain an edu­ca­tion.

Dis­missal time at the city’s pub­lic high schools is not for the faint of heart.

In what of­ten amounts to a hec­tic, if not volat­ile mix at many sites, you can have hun­dreds of teen­agers ex­it­ing the build­ing sim­ul­tan­eously, SEPTA buses lined up out­side, school and city po­lice of­ficers swarm­ing the peri­met­er, stu­dents’ fam­ily and friends ar­riv­ing, school fac­ulty and staff leav­ing, oth­er mo­tor­ists passing and neigh­bors wait­ing anxiously for the per­fect storm.

Some­times, it all un­folds without a hitch. But a mere spark — a brew­ing feud per­haps, or even a dirty look — can ig­nite chaos.

For years, Samuel Fels High School in Sum­mer­dale has had a repu­ta­tion as one of the schools where bad things oc­cur, ac­cord­ing to stu­dents now en­rolled there. Their fam­il­ies, friends and neigh­bors shake their heads with the mere men­tion of the place. Pro­spect­ive stu­dents with as­pir­a­tions of high­er learn­ing are con­di­tioned to con­sider it an op­tion of last re­sort.

Yet, at a time when school vi­ol­ence throughout the city has been gar­ner­ing in­creas­ing levels of news-me­dia cov­er­age — and when one of the city’s daily news­pa­pers earned a pres­ti­gi­ous Pulitzer Prize for its re­port­ing of the es­cal­a­tion — Fels seems to be buck­ing the trend.

Stat­ist­ics say so and stu­dents say so.

And while the emer­gence of a demon­strat­ive and de­mand­ing rook­ie prin­cip­al may be the most tan­gible dif­fer­ence there this year — bring­ing new uni­forms and new ex­pect­a­tions with him — stu­dent lead­ers and the prin­cip­al agree that it’s been noth­ing short of an ex­tens­ive col­lab­or­a­tion among the en­tire school com­munity ef­fect­ing change.

“My friends out­side school think it’s noth­ing but fights here and (that) kids are not im­prov­ing aca­dem­ic­ally,” said Channa Elum, the seni­or class treas­urer.

“I think people look at it as a bad school be­cause of our past, the bad in­cid­ents,” said Mor­ri­ah Young, the seni­or class pres­id­ent. “But I think the people who go here now know we’re mak­ing im­prove­ments. And I think pretty much the com­munity can see change.”

Prin­cip­al Shawn McGuigan, a 40-year-old May­fair nat­ive and Lin­coln High gradu­ate in his first year at Fels, fires off flat­ter­ing stat­ist­ics much like Roy Hal­laday throws fast­balls — hard and with a pur­pose.

Last school year, Fels had a tru­ancy rate of 73.5 per­cent, mean­ing al­most three-fourths of its roughly 1,600 stu­dents chron­ic­ally were ab­sent or ar­rived late, ac­cord­ing to McGuigan. The School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia set an im­prove­ment “tar­get” of 66.2 per­cent for 2011-12.

The new tru­ancy rate is around 32 per­cent, McGuigan said. Per­haps not co­in­cid­ent­ally, en­roll­ment is down to about 1,350.

Sim­il­arly, last school year, av­er­age daily stu­dent at­tend­ance was 79.8 per­cent of total en­roll­ment. This year’s tar­get was 81.8 per­cent. The ac­tu­al year-to-date fig­ure is around 86 per­cent, McGuigan said.

Per­haps the prin­cip­al’s most stun­ning fig­ure is the re­duc­tion in cer­tain types of vi­ol­ent in­cid­ents at the school.

Fels is one of 12 Phil­adelphia high schools and 12 across the state in­cluded on the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion’s Per­sist­ently Dan­ger­ous Schools list. The list, up­dated each school year, is based on the num­ber of in­cid­ents at each school, with con­sid­er­a­tion for vari­ances in en­roll­ment.

Ap­plic­able in­cid­ents in­clude ag­grav­ated as­saults, sexu­al as­saults, weapons vi­ol­a­tions, ar­sons and rob­ber­ies, McGuigan said.

Ac­cord­ing to the new prin­cip­al, there were 46 “Per­sist­ently Dan­ger­ous Schools in­cid­ents” at Fels in 2010-11. A school of Fels’ size would need 19 or few­er to be re­moved from the list. So far this year, there have been about a dozen such in­cid­ents, McGuigan claims.

Oth­er prob­lems have oc­curred that don’t af­fect the per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous status, the prin­cip­al ex­plained. Some­times po­lice ar­rest stu­dents for less­er of­fenses like dis­orderly con­duct or simple as­sault. Those are re­por­ted to the school dis­trict, too.

The school dis­trict’s Web site cites 83 “ser­i­ous in­cid­ents” at Fels last year, in­clud­ing 53 cat­egor­ized as as­saults. Oth­ers in­cluded drug vi­ol­a­tions (12), weapons vi­ol­a­tions (15) and thefts (three). The dis­trict has its own set of cri­ter­ia for ser­i­ous in­cid­ents, in­de­pend­ent of those used by the state for its per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous clas­si­fic­a­tion.

A run­ning tally of ser­i­ous in­cid­ents for this year was un­avail­able. The school dis­trict did not re­spond to nu­mer­ous re­quests by the North­east Times for com­ment for this story.

To put the latest ser­i­ous-in­cid­ent stat­ist­ics in­to some con­text, 126 as­saults oc­curred at Fels dur­ing the 2008-09 school year and 61 in 2009-10, ac­cord­ing to the school dis­trict’s Web site.

Be­fore the 2009-10 year, Fels moved from an old, cramped former middle-school build­ing at 901 Dever­eaux Ave. to a newly built fa­cil­ity on an open, cam­pus-like set­ting at 5500 Lang­don St.

McGuigan an­ti­cip­ates skep­ti­cism when he cites the latest tru­ancy, at­tend­ance and Per­sist­ently Dan­ger­ous School in­cid­ent fig­ures, as if he and his ad­min­is­tra­tion aren’t re­port­ing everything that hap­pens.

“We re­port,” he said. “I’d be glad to show every­body what we’re re­port­ing.”

McGuigan claims that the school didn’t have one ma­jor fight on cam­pus from open­ing day through Decem­ber. Things picked up after the New Year, with a total of nine in Janu­ary and Feb­ru­ary.

In one case, two stu­dents who trans­ferred in from New York bumped an­oth­er stu­dent and a “beef” de­veloped. The new­er stu­dents al­legedly spread a ru­mor that their friends were go­ing to show up one day with guns, but it nev­er happened, McGuigan said.

In an­oth­er re­cent in­cid­ent, school po­lice con­fron­ted three boys in a hall­way dur­ing a class peri­od. They ordered the stu­dents to go to class, but one re­fused. In­stead, he caused a dis­turb­ance and then fled the build­ing, with McGuigan in pur­suit.

School of­fi­cials called Phil­adelphia po­lice, who ar­res­ted the stu­dent for dis­orderly con­duct.

By most ac­counts, Phil­adelphia po­lice ac­tu­ally have heard re­l­at­ively little from Fels this school year and con­sider that a good thing. Fels is in the 2nd Po­lice Dis­trict, which has two of­ficers per­man­ently as­signed to patrol around the school, al­though not in­side the build­ing un­less re­ques­ted.

“The of­ficers who are as­signed to the school have seen a dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ence,” said Capt. Mike Mc­Car­rick, the 2nd dis­trict com­mand­er. “There’s a lot more of a hands-on ap­proach by school ad­min­is­trat­ors than in past years.

“At dis­missal time, we don’t have to have ten (patrol) cars rid­ing around. The in­cid­ents in the school are not reach­ing the levels they did be­fore. You will have some fights after school, and in­cid­ents that res­on­ate from the school in­to the neigh­bor­hood and vice-versa, but they’re down sig­ni­fic­antly.”

Stu­dents say the num­bers quoted by McGuigan re­flect the chan­ging cli­mate at Fels, even if the school’s repu­ta­tion lags.

“When I was in ninth grade and walk­ing through the halls, there were fights like every day,” Elum said. “Now I can walk through and it’s a breeze.”

“When (friends) see me with the Fels shirt on, they joke around and say, ‘That’s the worst school ever,’” said Dar­nicha Sen­at, the seni­or class sec­ret­ary. “But us as seni­ors, we’re the ones who raised the bar and we’re show­ing you can’t judge a book by its cov­er.” ••

Next week: The Samuel Fels High School prin­cip­al and stu­dent lead­ers dis­cuss pro­grams and activ­it­ies that have helped re­duce dis­cip­lin­ary prob­lems and pro­mote achieve­ment at the school.


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