Alexander Cintro was cool with school last year.
He was a sophomore at Benjamin Franklin High School, one block north of School District headquarters on North Broad Street, making a name for himself in the school’s U.S. Navy-sponsored Junior ROTC program; already calculating how to pay for college.
With enrollment of just 570, Ben Franklin had a small-school vibe even though, on the charts, the facility was enormous. Opened in 1958, it was built to hold 1,800 students. Cintro, 17, of North Philadelphia, got to know his teachers and form special bonds with the ROTC advisers. He was getting to know many of his classmates.
Then Cintro—in fact, the entire school—was thrown for a jolt in September. Franklin had become the receiving school for Vaux and University City—two of the eight high schools closed by the district in June. Incoming students from those schools — and from Bok, Gratz and other places — boosted enrollment to over 850.
The sudden growth, the infusion of so many strangers, made the first several weeks even more unsettling than usual. Students’ class schedules were in disarray. The lunchroom approximated a tinderbox. Outsiders were finding ways into the building. Students were acting out in class and getting into fights. Even parents were unruly, according to the Principal Gregory Hailey.
Last winter, parents, teachers and students had predicted bedlam if the financially distressed district moved forward with plans to close schools and shrink workforce. This fall, at Franklin, the predictions had the ring of reality. Teachers and senior staff had their hands full trying to keep the school under control.
The lid came off in late October when a melee involving students broke out outside the lunchroom. Police had to be called in, tear gas was used to disperse the crowd, a dozen students were arrested and later expelled or suspended. Bedlam had arrived.
For Alexander Cintro, school as he had known it had disappeared: New routines; many, many new faces, both students and teachers; disruptions to avoid; obstacles to navigate. To make the best of his last two years of high school, the reserved, soft-spoken teen was going to have to show grit and resilience.
His view reflected that of his parents. “You’re going to have larger classes and you’re going to have to focus more,” he recalled his parents telling him. “So, that’s what you do.”
Easier said than done. When I visited the school last month, Cintro and several schoolmates reflected on life in a school working its way through a storm of change.
“There’s too much drama, too much … everything,” said Diamond Anderson, 14, whose family moved to North Philadelphia from Scranton, Pa., over the summer. Her parents, she said, tell her “you better get them A’s. … And I make good grades.” She said her math class is “calm and relaxed” but others are disrupted by students acting out.
Kayonnah Butts, 16, of North Philadelphia agreed. “I like the school but there’s been a lot of fighting.” Her parents have advised her to try hard to get along with classmates. “They say you’re always not going to like somebody but even so you’re going to have to work with them.”
Kenneth Mitchell, 15, of West Philadelphia, was on the same wave length as Cintro. “I want to get the work done and I want to get my education,” he said. Still, Mitchell could not name one class he enjoyed. “I’m stuck in class and somebody else is talking, cussing, picking a fight while I’m trying to do my work.”
His teachers, he said, did little to quell the disruptions. Cintro agreed. Some teachers, he said, “just watch it happen.”
His strategy, like Mitchell’s and Anderson’s, is to stay focused on his own situation. “I block out all that activity,” said Cintro. “I sit there and do my work and when I’m done I ask the teacher for more work.”
No good deed goes unpunished. Cintro’s serious, head-down demeanor earns him taunts from other schoolmates. Cintro related these snatches of dialogue with the other students:
“They say, ‘Oh, he thinks he’s a smart kid.’ “I say, ‘You’re sitting there and not getting an education.’
“And they say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a life out of school, I’m going to do all this stuff.’”
In his mind, they are going nowhere fast. “They may say that now but when you get out of high school, it’s on you. … Right now I have a whole set of goals and they’re just playing around. They think it’s going to get them somewhere when it’s really not.”
Hailey, in his second year as principal, remains upbeat, despite the severity of the growing pains. The school reported 18 serious incidents through November compared with 33 for all of the last school year. By early December, 21 students faced expulsion proceedings—more than half of them from the late October fight outside the lunchroom, an incident that had its origins in an off-campus dispute the previous day.
Many of the conflicts have stemmed from “neighborhoods converging,” said Hailey.
Students who had expected to finish their years at one school were turned into nomads and had to venture into new, unfamiliar turf. After the rough start, Heiley is hoping for something approaching calm is in sight. “Kids are very resilient and they are finding things here they like,” Hailey said.
The school does have assets, including 15 varsity sports, a full-size gym with bleachers plus various traditions established over its 75-year history. “The Vaux kids in particular are gaining more stuff, more programs they didn’t have in a smaller school.” University City students were given Franklin as an option after they pleaded not to be separated, and more than 100 students from that school now attend Franklin.
Franklin’s central locale, just north of Center City with access to the Broad Street line and the Route 43 bus line, also is a plus. And Hailey hopes that programs including Junior ROTC, culinary arts (new this fall) and an advanced manufacturing program scheduled to open next year will prove attractive.
The effects of the district’s financial troubles, which resulted in thousands of layoffs, have trickled down to Franklin.
The school has suffered for lack of staffing, including security personnel. The halls were quiet on a midday visit earlier this month, but students loitered — all of them male, in groups of two or three or more — on the landings in the stairwell nearest the sixth-floor lunchroom.
Reinforcements may be on the way. A second counselor is scheduled to arrive in January. So are several learning support staffers—Hailey says one in four students at Franklin is classified as needing special education or emotional support services.
In the short term, Hailey said he and others “try to get into the classroom as much as humanly possible to help out with those students” to offer support and minimize outbursts.
In terms of size and looks, Franklin is a classic late 1950′s high school. Its design is institutional austere. It sprawls. Taken in its totality, it can overwhelm. Life in a large school can be like sailing into a maelstrom. What students need is a “safe haven,” according to James Washington, an ex-Navy man who oversees the Navy Junior ROTC, along with Wayne Atherholt, who is an ex-Marine.
Some students, Atherholt said, are “straight hard” and shun opportunities to find their own niche.
But others, he said, “see programs they can avail themselves of and excel at—programs like this, or culinary arts, or athletics, that give them the opportunity to blossom. The ones that don’t find a home…you see in the hallway, with no place to go.”
The ROTC program has doubled in size, from 55 last year to 109 now, including more than 60 freshmen. Students take ROTC as an elective. Alexander Cintro has found his safe haven in this program. The ROTC wing is freshly painted, brightly lit, with access to an outdoor basketball court six stories above the street. It’s a place of respite, said Atherholt.
“In here there’s so much structure, and that gives students the freedom to focus on their studies, on their own maturation,” he said. The program draws about 60 percent boys, 40 percent girls, and is proving attractive to recent immigrant students, with 20 enrolled to date. They come from all over the world: Dominica, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, to name a few. “Sometimes there’s a language barrier, but once they know their left from their right and their ‘about-face’ and ‘march,’ they’re set,” said Atherholt.
The immigrants in particular appreciate the crisp navy-blue and khaki uniforms that ROTC students wear at least once a week.
Hailey has also decided to implement school-wide dress-code policy: Beginning in January, all students will wear khaki pants and a navy blue or white shirt.
The ROTC advisers noted that the influx of teachers from University City and Vaux had raised the energy level among staff and that both staff and students had a great time at a late-November pep rally that Hailey had scheduled in the wake of the October dustup.
Requiring all students to wear khaki and blue also will be a bonus, they said. “We’ll be able to see who’s supposed to be here and who’s not,” said Atherholt.
For Washington and Atherholt, Alexander Cintro is an example of a young person who has learned to thrive amid chaos and uncertainty. He is the ROTC group’s executive officer, the second highest position available to cadets.
“What we hope, is that other students will see that these guys from different neighborhoods can get along,” said Atherholt. “Kids can find a place for themselves. They are resilient. Even though they get thrown into a new school, into a new situation that they didn’t ask for, they have inner resources that they can draw upon and they can do well.”
Cintro has the right attitude, his advisers agreed. And he has the inner resources to, as he puts it, “stay away from negativity” that swirls around him. This year it was harder, but Cintro remains a young man with goals he is determined to achieve.
Photos by Maria Pouchnikova
This story was originally published on AxisPhilly.org.
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