School thrives on innovation
By Dan Hardy
Inquirer Staff Writer
Sarah Seilus was in trouble.
As one of 1,200 freshmen in Upper Darby High School, she felt lost and unhappy. “I never felt like going to school,” she said recently. She missed dozens of days, falling further and further behind, and flunked ninth grade.
Seilus was rescued last fall by a new program, Transition Ninth. Instead of repeating ninth grade, as she would have had to do at most schools, she and 102 other students were enrolled in special classes. The goal: passing the failed courses to catch up as quickly as possible to their classmates and, in the process, reconnecting them to their school.
So far, it has worked. Seilus, who said she would have dropped out if she were not in the program, attends school more frequently and is getting passing grades. “We’re closer with our teachers; they’re so much more understanding,” she said. “This year, it’s different.”
Because it has instituted many innovative programs such as Transition Ninth, Upper Darby, the second-largest high school in Pennsylvania, with 4,000 students, has become a laboratory for change.
Upper Darby is “a model for taking high school reform seriously and addressing it with great dedication,” said Sheila Rosenblum, a Philadelphia-based consultant who is monitoring how the district is spending a $500,000 federal school-improvement grant that was awarded in 2003.
“They haven’t solved all the problems, but they haven’t shirked them, either.”
Hugging the frontier between Philadelphia and Delaware County, the Upper Darby district is one of the most diverse in Pennsylvania. For decades, families from dozens of nationalities and ethnic groups looking for high-quality schools have moved there from the city, or from other countries.
Since the mid-1990s, large numbers of African Americans, along with the children of Asian, South Asian and African immigrants, have swelled district rolls.
The high school struggles to serve a student population that is more typical of large urban schools. School halls echo with more than 30 languages. About a third of the students are poor.
“When you walk in through the front door, it’s like a little city – you can find people from everywhere and learn from them,” said Marcia Dorley, 18, who lived in Liberia until she was in seventh grade.
Many students thrive. Jumah Taweh, whose family fled the turmoil in Liberia, moved first to Philadelphia, then to Upper Darby when she was in fifth grade. A senior, she plans to attend Pennsylvania State University’s Berks campus this fall; she wants to be a pediatrician. The high school, she said, is “just like a big family; you can depend that they will be there to support you.”
A very big family, indeed. At the high school, a nondescript 1970s-era, four-story brick building, everything is plus-size. There are 157 classrooms and two gymnasiums. The auditorium seats 1,700; the lunchroom seats about 1,000. An outdoor stadium is the only place big enough to fit everybody.
The size can be daunting, students say. When Victor Adu-Bohene, now a senior, came to the school in 2004 from Ghana, “the first time, when the bell rang and I stepped into the hallway, I was totally lost,” he said. “I had a schedule sheet in my hand, but I didn’t know where to go.”
Still, halls and classrooms are clean, safe and orderly. The many nationalities appear to be largely at peace with each other. “Kids in this school are used to seeing people of color and different ethnicities,” said principal Geoff Kramer. “There doesn’t seem to be much tension.”
There are no metal detectors. Only a handful of students are seen in corridors during classes, and they have passes. The security staff of nine patrols the halls with help from teachers and administrators. Students who fight are taken to District Court, fined, and often enrolled in antiviolence and community-service programs. “It’s under control. I feel safe here,” Dorley said.
Last year, the school reported 32 incidents, including assaults on one student and 11 staff members; the year before, 25 incidents were reported, with assaults on four students and eight staff members.
“For a school that size, with that diverse a population, I don’t think there are a lot of incidents,” said Capt. Michael Kenny of the Upper Darby Police Patrol Division.
Administrators keep close watch. It’s not uncommon to find them at the Exxon station down the street if a fight is rumored, Kramer said. “We go the extra half-mile to make sure that our kids behave themselves,” he said.
Academically, the school struggles. It is on Pennsylvania’s No Child Left Behind list of schools that need to improve. White and Asian students score close to or higher than the state benchmark of 45 percent proficiency in math and 54 percent in reading. But blacks lag, at about 30 percent in reading and about 21 percent in math.
Close to 4 percent of seniors drop out, a higher rate than in most suburban districts but lower than most Philadelphia schools.
There are good reasons why performance lags, Kramer said. Last school year, 13 percent of students transferred in. Most came from Philadelphia, several dozen from foreign countries.
Many read at a second-grade level. “We’ve got kids who are just not prepared to do what our teachers are asking them to do,” said former social studies teacher Colleen Shoemaker, who now trains teachers in new techniques.
As the largest high school in the region, Upper Darby also has a size problem. Many experts advocate smaller high schools of no more than 800 students, especially in urban areas. That’s smaller than Upper Darby’s freshman class. But, with a tax rate that’s already high because there is little commercial development, Upper Darby can’t afford to build smaller schools, Kramer said.
The school’s size has a benefit. It enables the school to offer an unusually broad range of courses. A child-care course has students working with preschoolers in a suite inside the school; there are cosmetology courses and a horticultural program, complete with a greenhouse. There is even a student-run credit union.
“They work very hard to have all of the kids take advantage of their offerings, and the breadth of their offerings is remarkable,” said Mary Helen Spiri, director of the Chesapeake Coalition of Essential Schools, a high school reform group working with the district.
The school also has a reputation for innovation. It was among the first in the area to initiate 80-minute block scheduling and to mandate four years of English, math, social studies and science.
Spiri credits the school’s 260 teachers and other professionals. “Their strength is the quality of their people,” she said.
Indeed, music teacher Barbara Benglian in September was named Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.
Helped by federal and state grants totaling $600,000, school officials have instituted new programs in the last few years that they hope will soon pay off.
In 2003, the school turned the ninth grade into a “freshman academy.” The class is divided into four teams; their teachers also work in teams, and most get time to consult with one another about student progress. Instruction time for English and math was doubled, and struggling students get junior and senior tutors.
Results are encouraging: The percentage of freshmen who were held back last school year dropped from 13 percent to 9 percent. And this year, the Transition Ninth program that Seilus is in promises more success. Without it, said teacher Tara Liberatore, students “would have felt foolish if they had been back with this year’s freshmen, and they probably would have slipped through the cracks and stopped coming to school.”
Students are responding to the changes. Nina Dixon missed two months of ninth grade last spring when she moved to New York but didn’t enroll in a high school there. Starting last fall, she was able to catch up with her peers through the Transition Ninth program and is taking mostly 10th-grade classes this semester. She is thankful for the second chance. “Here, they care about your education,” she said.
Upper Darby High by the Numbers
Location: 601 N. Lansdowne Ave.,
Upper Darby Township
2005-06 freshman class… 1,100
Professional staff… 260
Percentage of studentsfrom low-income families… 33
Percentage of students taking the SAT
Class of 2005, plans after graduation, in percentage
Four-year college or university… 47
Two-year school… 33
Technical/trade school… 6
Ethnic makeup, in percentage
African American… 33.5
SOURCES: Upper Darby School District, Inquirer Report Card