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.EndFragment