Two Phila. charter schools shine as beacons of nonviolence

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Rebekah Robbins (right), 14, and Tiasheema Scott, 15, solve cubes at Freire Charter School. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia School District recently crowed that for the first time none of its schools made the state’s notorious “persistently dangerous” list.

But that announcement came after the revelation that the district reported 2,485 violent incidents during the 2013-2014 school year.

While that number is apparently acceptable to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, it gets a failing grade from Kelly Davenport, Head of Schools at Freire (free-air-ee) Charter School.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to physical or verbal violence and cyber bullying,” said Davenport, whose Philadelphia middle and high school provides a 100 percent nonviolent, safe learning environment for underserved, urban students in grades 5-12.

This policy isn’t limited to the classroom. If a Freire student acts violently anywhere — whether on the street or on a subway — he or she will be expelled. No second chances.

“We use words rather than fists to settle conflicts,” Davenport said. “Students even receive mediation training from PaxUnited.”

When conflict arises, students are free to take any student — or teacher — to mediation. The process is monitored by a peer mediator and results in a contract. If the contract is broken, a more senior mediator, usually an adult, is called in.

Creating a peaceful environment has paid off for Davenport. Ninety-four percent of the 2013 graduating class headed straight to college. The same year, U.S. News and World Report placed Freire on their “Best High Schools” list.

“We have high expectations,” Davenport said. “We expect every student to graduate, and we expect every graduate to attend a four-year college.”

In a city where public schools are plagued by a high dropout rate, these aspirations are out of reach for the majority of students. Freire not only sends it graduates off to top colleges, it makes sure they have the financial aid they need. The Class of 2014 earned an average of $59,665 per student in scholarships.

“We not only help students get into college, we make sure they stay there,” said academic adviser Chris Moore. “We guide them toward colleges that offer students the support they need.”

That doesn’t mean students are steered only toward large state colleges. Moore recalled a 2014 graduate who rose above family circumstances and serious health issues to attend Bard on full scholarship. In the past, Freire grads have gone to other prestigious colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Spellman and Mount Holyoke.

Parental involvement is paramount.

A software program called Power School keeps parents linked 24/7 to their children’s grades, attendance and behavior. When grades slip, students are paired with paid peer tutors under adult supervision.

Davenport traces Freire’s record of achievement to 1999 when she joined the founding staff.

“I was working on my doctoral dissertation at Penn and came to Freire as a teacher. I had a clear vision of what needed to happen and was quickly promoted to head of academics,” she said.

What is in her secret sauce? High expectations. Rigorous academics. Safe environment.

Davenport is as demanding of her teachers as of her students.

“Our teachers have to consistently move the needle, one student at a time, every day,” she said.

She subscribes to the educational philosophy of Tony Wagner, the Harvard education specialist who emphasizes “critical thinking, communication and collaboration.”

How are these skills transferred to students? Every year, Freire Charter School takes a two-day break from curriculum for its Take Back the City event.

“The first day is based on core lessons surrounding the event’s theme. Students explore, discuss and write about the issue. Last year it was empathy,” Davenport said. “The second day, 20 students volunteered to share their thoughts at an open mic with the entire student body. Their opening line was, “If you really knew me, this is what you’d know ….”

Then came the intimate stories that would shock middle-class, suburban kids, but were all too familiar for these urban children. Tales of domestic violence, illness and murder.

“We provide a safe space in which their voices can be heard,” Davenport said.

“People think that inner city kids have trouble learning. That’s the easy part. The real challenge is developing teachers who want to be part of the process of change, who want to make a difference.”

After launching Freire Charter School’s high school in Philadelphia 1999 and opening a middle school in 2012, Davenport is taking on Wilmington, Del., ranked “the most dangerous small city in America.” In 2015, she will open her third Freire Charter School there.

The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.