PHILADELPHIA — In science class this fall, Maxwell Gontarek has been
learning about genetic engineering by observing the offspring of two
zebra fish — an albino father and a wild mother.
“I’ve gone here so many years I don’t really want to leave,” said Maxwell, 12, who plays stand-up bass in music class and is one of three seventh-grade representatives on Student Council at the Penn Alexander School, a public school run in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Umar Farooqi, in his seventh-grade social studies class, has been learning about the trial and execution of Greek philosopher Socrates, convicted of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens.
“I love it. This school has good education, I love the building and the teachers are really cool,” said Farooqi, who has two younger sisters also enrolled at Penn Alexander and an older brother who has since graduated to Central High, a top academic magnet school.
This is public education at one of Philadelphia’s most successful school “experiments.”
Since opening its doors in 2001, just before the state takeover of city schools, the West Philadelphia K-8 school created from scratch by the school district, the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has become a success story in its neighborhood — and a model for school reform in other cities.
Students interviewed said they were hooked on their school, from its engaging classroom lessons to the building’s unique design, which features plenty of windows and a sun-drenched atrium that is ringed by classrooms on three floors.
“It just has a friendly atmosphere and the learning environment is really good,” Farooqi, 12, said of the school. “It makes you feel welcome, I guess.”
Educators nationwide are hooked, too — on the school’s test scores.
UCLA called a few weeks ago. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock recently sent two representatives to check out the school at 42nd and Spruce streets. The College of Charleston and Howard University, in the nation’s capital, have also been in touch.
These universities want to understand how Penn created one of the city’s highest-performing public K-8 schools — while drawing students solely from the school’s surrounding neighborhood.
The latest state standardized test scores show that 81.4 percent of the school’s students are proficient or advanced in math, and 80.3 percent achieved those levels in reading.
By comparison, across the Philadelphia School District, 44.9 percent of students are on target in math and 40.6 percent in reading.
“The expectations are high and the curriculum is rigorous,” observed Sheila Sydnor, who was selected from 60 applicants to become the Penn Alexander School’s first and only principal.
“I don’t think we teach ‘just enough.’ We go beyond just enough, and that has made a difference,” added the 32-year district veteran.
Penn Alexander’s success has unfolded at the same time as the school district’s much-watched experiment of placing 45 low-performing schools under private management.
Penn Alexander has always achieved adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to Sydnor, helping 83 percent of last year’s eighth-graders earn admittance to top high schools, with nearly half being accepted at magnet Central High School.
Sandra Dungee Glenn, chairwoman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, said the school district has not yet attempted to determine how Penn Alexander has been able to achieve its success.
“I don’t know that anyone has taken a hard look in terms of, what is it that’s making it work?” she said. “Is it that extra investment from the university that’s paying for some special things there? That’s the kind of thing I think we need to take a closer look at.”
Sydnor and Penn Alexander faculty members confirmed without reservation that the school’s success is directly linked to the partnership with Penn.
For starters, Penn contributes $1,000 per student annually at the 511-student school. The additional teachers hired with those funds help keep class sizes no larger than 17 students in kindergarten and no more than 24 students in first through eighth grades. In the school district, by contrast, classes can be as large as 30 students in kindergarten through third grades, and 33 students in fourth through 12th grades.
The school has a certified librarian, a full-time instrumental music teacher and an education technologist who oversees the school’s 350 laptop and desktop computers, which are in three labs, the library and all classrooms.
In addition, the school selects all of its own teachers and is aided by staff and student teachers from Penn’s Graduate School of Education, while regular field trips to Penn’s science lab and other facilities are invaluable, Sydnor said.
Parent Eugenia Hewwing said the school’s racial diversity was a draw and relief after her 7-year-old son, Christian Campbell, experienced trouble fitting in as one the few African American students at his former Lower Merion Township school.
“I already see the improvement,” Hewwing said after volunteering at the school recently. “He actually likes going to school. He’s not coming home saying, ‘Mommy, the kids didn’t want to play with me.’”
Diversity is important to Mecky Pohlschroder, as well. The Penn microbiology professor was born in Germany and her husband is from Ivory Coast, in West Africa.
While volunteering at the school where the couple has a son in first grade, Pohlschroder also praised the school’s embrace of parents.
“I’m definitely not an odd person who is here,” she said, pausing from helping a group of first-graders write the letters “O” and “P.”
“We often overlap,” she said of parents. “The fact that the teachers do allow the parents to come in is really nice for me. I know friends who say, ‘Oh, really? My teacher doesn’t want us to come in.’”
(The Philadelphia Daily News)