Best, most improved schools in Philly honored

Assistant Superintendent Eric Becoats and Potter-Thomas Elementary School Principal Dywonne Davis-Harris talk to third grader Anthony Rodriguez, 8, before a ceremony honoring Potter-Thomas as one of the most improved schools in the city. AVI STEINHARDT / For the Inquirer and Daily News

They are charters and traditional public schools; elementaries, middle and high schools.

And on Monday, they were named the city’s top and most improved performers, honored with cheers, banners, trophies, and handshakes from Mayor Kenney and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

Twenty-six schools earned laurels for their marks on the Philadelphia School District’s school performance report, an internal measure that examines 2016-17 test performance, student growth, climate, and other factors to arrive at a single numerical score.

“We’re making progress across public schools in the city of Philadelphia,” Hite said at a ceremony at Potter-Thomas Elementary, a fast-improving school in Fairhill. “More of our children are learning in higher-performing schools.”

Camera icon AVI STEINHARDT / For the Inquirer and Daily News
William R. Hite Jr. congratulates schools at a ceremony honoring the city’s top and most improved performers.

Citywide, the leaders were Anne Frank, in the Northeast, for elementary schools; Penn Alexander, in West Philadelphia, for K-8 schools; Masterman, in Spring Garden, for middle schools; and Central, in Logan, for high schools.

The most improved schools were J.B. Kelly, in Germantown, for elementary schools; E.M. Stanton, in South Philadelphia, for K-8; Feltonville Arts and Sciences, in Feltonville, for middle schools; and Constitution, in Center City, for high schools.

Overall, the city’s schools scores — district and charter — rose, with the average school scoring 37 out of 100; last year, the average was 35. (District schools scores’ rose to 34, from 32 the prior year.)

In all, 164 of 319 graded schools increased in overall scores from 2015-16 to 2016-17 — 111 district schools and 53 charters.

Some of the biggest gains were posted by the district’s Turnaround Network, some of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Schools are placed in that network with extra supports and scrutiny with the expectation that they will post rapid gains.

Potter-Thomas jumped from a score of 9 in 2015-16 to a score of 41 in 2016-17.

Principal Dywonne Davis-Harris said the supports made all the difference. Potter-Thomas, like others in the turnaround network, got an assistant principal, reading and math teacher coaches, reduced class sizes in the primary grades, additional teacher development time in the summer and during the school year and a staffer to assist with family engagement.

Camera icon AVI STEINHARDT / For the Inquirer and Daily News
Potter-Thomas Elementary School third graders wear placards representing their dreams and aspirations before performing at a ceremony Monday.

It’s a marked difference from the district’s lean budget years — Davis-Harris, who’s been principal for nine years, calls that “the time of famine” — when support staff was virtually nonexistent and if something broke, there was no budget to replace it.

“You could see our scores start to decline,” said Davis-Harris. Students and staff felt forgotten. With the infusion of resources, that has changed, she said. Students now have things unheard of in the age of austerity: after-school programs, for instance.

“You can pull up at 7 a.m. and there are kids waiting to get in,” the principal said of the school at Sixth Street and Indiana Avenue, where every student is considered economically disadvantaged. “They want to be here.”

Kenney hailed both Potter-Thomas’ achievements and those of city schools in general.

“When the School District is making progress, our city’s future looks bright,” said Kenney.

He used the moment to re-emphasize the city’s commitment to the district, both financial and in governance. The state-run School Reform Commission will dissolve at the end of June, making way for a Kenney-appointed nine-member school board. The mayor has promised that the city will fill a looming budget gap, and has not taken off the table the possibility of a property-tax hike to pay for it.

“Our schools have made progress, and we cannot let them backslide again,” the mayor said.

In addition to the city leaders, the district also recognized other schools that achieved “peer leader” status for their scores. They are:

Elementary Schools: Feltonville Intermediate, Universal Bluford, Holme. (City leader: Anne Frank.)

K-8 Schools: Pan American Charter School, Universal Alcorn Charter School, Universal Creighton Charter School, Antonia Pantoja Charter School, Discovery Charter School, Philadelphia Academy Charter School, Kirkbride, and Keystone Academy Charter School. (City leader: Penn Alexander.)

Middle Schools: Esperanza Academy Charter School, Young Scholars Charter School. (City leader: Masterman.)

High Schools: Mastery-Pickett Charter School; Marianna Bracetti Charter School; Multicultural Academy Charter School; Academy at Palumbo; Carver High School of Engineering and Science. (City leader: Central.)

And yes, even a rally celebrating achievement in city public schools was not immune from Eagles fever. (A few principals even waved Eagles rally towels as they celebrated their achievements.)

Although Kenney told the audience that “our efforts here are more important than the Super Bowl,” one of the loudest cheers of the day came not for schools but for the Eagles.

And at the end of the ceremony, Evelyn Sample-Oates — the district’s executive director, advocacy and external engagement, and daughter of former Eagles defensive back Johnny Sample — led the room in an “E-A-G-L-E-S” chant.

Camera icon AVI STEINHARDT / For the Inquirer and Daily News
Mayor Kenney talks about school progress at a ceremony at Potter-Thomas Elementary on Monday.

After the ceremony, Kenney addressed questions some have raised over the process of choosing a new school board. His nominating panel has met once in public — but has said it will conduct the business of vetting applicants in a private process. It will hold only one other public meeting, to vote on the names of 27 applicants it plans to send to the mayor.

Despite some advocates’ displeasure that too much business was going on behind closed doors, Kenney said this was the only way to do business.

“There are certain personnel issues that can’t be discussed in the open,” the mayor said, promising that “there will be plenty of transparency.”