At Fels, they're working for improvements

— Ed­it­or’s Note: In this second of two parts, the North­east Times ex­am­ines pro­grams and ini­ti­at­ives at Samuel Fels High School that have helped re­duce the fre­quency of ser­i­ous stu­dent mis­con­duct while im­prov­ing at­tend­ance, tru­ancy rates and stand­ard­ized test scores.

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)


Samuel Fels High School has had sev­en prin­cipals in the last 10 years, the latest be­ing a 40-year-old May­fair nat­ive and pub­lic school product named Shawn McGuigan.

So it would be easy to cred­it him for Fels’ al­most im­plaus­ible im­prove­ment across an ar­ray of stat­ist­ic­al in­dic­at­ors in this, his first aca­dem­ic year in charge there.

Last year, the tru­ancy rate was more than 73 per­cent. This year, it’s less than 35 per­cent. Last year, av­er­age daily at­tend­ance was about 80 per­cent. This year, it’s more than 85 per­cent.

Last year, there were 46 so-called “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous school” in­cid­ents at Fels, eas­ily qual­i­fy­ing it for the statewide PDS list. This year, there have been 11 in­cid­ents, a fig­ure well shy of the threshold (19) that would qual­i­fy Fels again for the du­bi­ous list.

Fels serves about 1,350 stu­dents in grades nine through 12 at 5500 Lang­don St. in Sum­mer­dale. The build­ing and its sprawl­ing cam­pus opened at the start of the 2009-10 school year. Be­fore that, Fels oc­cu­pied a cramped former middle school at 901 Dever­eaux Ave. That’s where the school earned and re­in­forced its repu­ta­tion as a less-than-nur­tur­ing aca­dem­ic and so­cial en­vir­on­ment.

Des­pite McGuigan’s re­l­at­ively re­cent ar­rival, change has been build­ing for quite some time on a found­a­tion of stu­dent sup­port ini­ti­at­ives, ac­cord­ing to the prin­cip­al and stu­dent lead­ers.

“When you’re a teen­ager and you don’t have a lot of sup­port, it’s a lot easi­er not to come (to school), to give up,” said Mor­ri­ah Young, the seni­or class pres­id­ent. ldquo;If I stop com­ing, they’re go­ing to reach out to me. But if no one reaches, then it’s like, ‘Why should I care?’”

“In my ninth grade year, I saw a lot of teach­ers not give any time to a stu­dent who’s not go­ing to pass a class,” said Chris­ti­an Jones, the seni­or class vice pres­id­ent. “They would just let them walk out.”

That’s not of­ten the case now, ac­cord­ing to Jones.

Fels has a safety net to catch many of the waver­ing stu­dents. It’s avail­able to those who at­tend class but struggle with the work, as well as those who simply dis­ap­pear for days or weeks on end.

“I think a lot of it is com­mon sense and it’s work­ing with the kids,” McGuigan said.

The at­tend­ance and tru­ancy is­sues go hand in hand. A stu­dent is con­sidered ab­sent if he or she fails to at­tend on a giv­en day. A stu­dent is con­sidered tru­ant when a pat­tern of un­ex­cused late­ness or ab­sence oc­curs. It doesn’t take long for the red flags to start wav­ing.

“If there’s any kind of tru­ancy is­sue, we have coun­selors call home,” McGuigan said.

When a stu­dent ac­cu­mu­lates five un­ex­cused ab­sences, the school sends a let­ter home.

There are four tra­di­tion­al guid­ance coun­selors on staff, as well as two people who act as the school’s li­ais­ons with par­ents and oth­er pub­lic agen­cies that may have to be in­volved with the stu­dent. One is called a school im­prove­ment sup­port li­ais­on, the oth­er is a com­munity re­source co­ordin­at­or.

In some cases, a stu­dent may have work or child care ob­lig­a­tions that con­flict with school. Some­times, stu­dents have un­healthy fam­ily situ­ations. Yet oth­er times, stu­dents have been in trouble with the law.

Coun­selors and co­ordin­at­ors can cre­ate a Com­pre­hens­ive Stu­dent As­sist­ance Pro­gram for at-risk stu­dents al­low­ing them to ful­fill their out­side ob­lig­a­tions while meet­ing school re­quire­ments.

“They work in­di­vidu­ally with kids when we have kids who are tru­ant or con­stantly ab­sent,” McGuigan said.

On the aca­dem­ic front, strug­gling stu­dents have tu­tor­ing and ment­or­ing help avail­able through an in­de­pend­ent, fed­er­ally fun­ded pro­gram housed in the school. A De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion grant sup­ports the Stu­dent Re­source Cen­ter, which provides about 50 full-time and vis­it­ing tu­tors and ment­ors.

The three-year grant is set to ex­pire at the end of the 2012-13 aca­dem­ic year. The School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia did not re­spond to re­quests for de­tails about the grant or for com­ment about pro­gram­ming at Fels.

Ac­cord­ing to McGuigan, about 15 ment­ors work at the re­source cen­ter daily, while dozens more vis­it on a part-time basis.

“When we get back those kids who have been (ab­sent), we as­sign them to a ment­or­ing pro­gram,” the prin­cip­al said.

Ment­ors meet with stu­dents dur­ing their lunch peri­ods and after school, com­pile daily re­ports about their classroom pro­gress and of­fer in­cent­ives for achieve­ment, such as movie passes or tick­ets to 76ers games.

Tu­tor­ing pro­grams aren’t just for prob­lem stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to Channa Elum, the seni­or class treas­urer.

“We have a lot of kids on the hon­or roll who have brought their test scores up. And we have a lot of kids who go to tu­tor­ing,” said Elum, who sought ex­tra help with a phys­ics class. “Phys­ics is do­ing good. The vocab­u­lary is real hard, but I take notes every day.”

School-wide, re­cent stand­ard­ized test res­ults have been en­cour­aging if not spec­tac­u­lar. El­ev­enth-grade stu­dents take the tests each year. This year’s res­ults have not been tab­u­lated, ac­cord­ing to McGuigan.

Last year, 25.8 per­cent of Fels ju­ni­ors were clas­si­fied as pro­fi­cient or ad­vanced on the read­ing por­tion of the test, com­pared to 18.2 per­cent of the pre­vi­ous year’s ju­ni­ors.

City­wide, however, 44.4 per­cent of ju­ni­ors were pro­fi­cient or ad­vanced last year.

In math, about 19 per­cent of Fels ju­ni­ors were pro­fi­cient or ad­vanced last year. They showed no change from the pre­vi­ous year’s ju­ni­or class. However, in 2008-09, Fels re­gistered just 10.3 per­cent in math.

City­wide, 38.2 per­cent of ju­ni­ors were pro­fi­cient or ad­vanced in math last year.

In an ef­fort to im­prove at­tend­ance on test­ing days this year, the school opened the cafet­er­ia early to stu­dents for break­fast. About 320 ju­ni­ors showed up for test­ing, leav­ing about 25 who had to take makeup ex­ams, the prin­cip­al said.

That’s a good ra­tio for a school try­ing hard to meet ad­equate yearly pro­gress or AYP as dic­tated by the fed­er­al No Child Left Be­hind Act.

“We don’t want to make AYP just to make it. We want stu­dents to have the self-es­teem that they at­tend a school that made AYP,” McGuigan said.

“(Out­siders) can say what they want, be­cause we set the bar high and in the end we ac­com­plished what we wanted,” Young said. ••


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