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. ••EndFragment