Marvin Watson, 17 and a senior at Olney Charter High School, glances around the Friday-night scene in the school cafeteria, where a few hundred students and parents — and a number of security personnel — are filtering in for Olney’s first-ever student “Open Mic Night.” Watson is trying to impress upon a reporter just how unusual all this would have looked a couple years ago. “Olney,” he concludes, “doesn’t do things like this.”
And yet, aside from some painful squeals of feedback, a few back-up-music malfunctions, an interruption by a teacher to ask for quiet (“When I have 100-percent attention, I will continue”) and one cringing moment of agony when a teenage chanteuse freezes on stage, then runs out of the room in tears, the night goes fairly smoothly.
Teachers and students say the event’s success — indeed, the fact that it took place at all — is symptomatic of a drastic transformation at Olney, a turnaround school that, up until last year, made repeated showings on the state’s “persistently dangerous” list. The nonprofit Aspira Association took over Olney East and West high schools in 2011. While the privatization of city schools has been a topic of debate in Philadelphia, those in attendance Friday insisted that the impact, just a year-and-a-half in, has been remarkable.
“We never even would have had something like this, the kids were so out of control,” says Maureen Fox, a longtime Olney special-ed teacher whom all the kids call “Foxy.” “You just wouldn’t have taken the chance that something would happen.”
Nimet Eren, the English department chair who’s in her sixth year teaching at Olney, says a group of young, motivated teachers has taken a cue from Aspira, which transformed the school at the outset. “They made the school look beautiful: They cleaned and painted and polished,” she says. For the first time, she has professional development and an academic support system. “Before, in the school district, it felt very negative. … Now, there are so many positive things happening. Look at how the kids are here on a Friday night.”
It’s been rocky; the school did not make “adequate yearly progress” last year. But assistant principal Bridget Bujak notes, “We had our work cut out for us.” Their welcome gift from the school district: “a huge bucket of keys for the building, with no labels.” Given the challenges, “Changing the climate was our goal last year, and this year our focus is on instruction.”
The message hasn’t reached everyone. Watson notes that he’s the closing act: “I’m the main event.” That’s, in part, because he’s the only 12th grader who showed up. “A lot of seniors try to be like this is the old Olney, people could cut [class] and play all they want.”
Still, he sees a slow change: “People are participating now.”
A more rapid change has been in student safety. Part of that has been strategic: Aspira has united the two Olney highs, where in the past “they would have east-side/west-side fights,” Bujak says. Part is a matter of resources. Jeff Morris, a former Temple cop, leads what’s now a 34-person security force, with four or five officers on each floor. “We know most of the kids. It’s like you’re mentoring relationships.”
That makes a difference in the classroom, says teacher Nick Mehalick. It used to be “you spent the first 15 minutes of your class clearing the halls, and the last 15 minutes.” With the energy he doesn’t have to spend on discipline, he’s started a student drumline.
Likewise, teacher Katie Dickerson has started a blog for her students’ poetry: olneywrites.com. Erina Pearlstein, a music teacher, has raised more than $6,000 to boost music education. “In the past, this school had a very vibrant orchestra and choral program. We have trophies from the ’60s and ’70s,” Pearlstein says. But there was no choir when Aspira took over. And “when Philadelphia left, they took all the instruments. They left us with garbage.” A local tuner, Howard Stickley, pitched in to repair pianos’ missing keys, pedals, even lids.
All this has not gone unnoticed by the more perceptive members of the student body. “All the benefits they were getting, that they didn’t get to keep [when they came to Aspira], you have to give them props for staying,” Watson says, preparing for his rap. (“I need her to turn that music up,” he says. “I’m used to venues, things like that.”)
“At least they’re trying,” he adds. “So it’s only right that I try.”
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