Inside Philadelphia's M. Hall Stanton Elementary School

Anyone looking for a dramatic turnaround of a school need look no further than M. Hall Stanton Elementary. In just two years, Stanton went from being a school where few children met state standards to one where most students met them. Stanton sits in just about as difficult an urban environment as exists in America—North Philadelphia. Its neighborhood of narrow brick rowhouses is one where a block of houses that bravely sports pumpkins and autumn leaves at Halloween immediately gives way to many blocks scarred by burned-out and boarded-up buildings, with individual houses and even entire blocks torn down—piles of rubble mark where homes once stood. Children walking to school regularly pass crack houses. Nightly shootings are common. "This is not the worst part of Philadelphia," said the Chief Academic Officer of the city's school system, Greg Thornton. "But it's close."

Stanton is a school of almost 500 K-seventh-grade students, virtually all of whom are African American and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Principal Barbara Adderley arrived in the 2001–2002 school year, when Stanton was one of 21 Philadelphia schools under a three-year restructuring process that in turn was part of a state program of supervision of the city's schools.

According to teachers who were there at the time, the school was in chaos. "No one wanted to come to the top floor" where the older children were, said Christina Taylor. Taylor was a fifth-grade teacher then, and she said her students used to beg her to allow them to eat lunch in her classroom because they were frightened to go into the halls. "We had the third- and fourth-grade gang wars," she said. "I just kept my kids with me all day."

Achievement levels at Stanton were among the lowest in Philadelphia. But in the 2003–2004 school year, the scores skyrocketed: 71 percent of Stanton's students met state reading standards and 47 percent met state math standards. The growth was so dramatic, in fact, that the district retested the students to make sure there had been no mistake or chicanery. The retest confirmed the results. When the 2005 test scores were released, showing that 73 percent of the students met state reading standards and 84 percent met state math standards, it was clear that 2004 had not been a one-year fluke, but rather a reflection of new practices—practices that included a careful reorganization of instruction, comprehensive professional development for teachers, close examination of student data, a curriculum tightly aligned to state standards, and shrewd use of federal Title I dollars.

The first thing a visitor notices is that, despite the fact that Stanton is housed in a large, dreary, three-story school building, it is kept very clean and the halls are as welcoming as institutional halls can be, with a huge fish tank in the hall outside the office, a curio cabinet with Adderley's doll collection, student work posted in the hallways, and teddy bears posed on rocking chairs next to tables with lots of inviting picture books. "People in other schools tell me they can't do this because their kids would tear the stuff apart," said Thornton. "But the kids here don't do that." "The only reason things fall off our walls," bragged Taylor, "is because the tape doesn't hold." The books get disarranged because "the children are reading them," she added. Taylor, a former fifth-grade teacher, is currently the lead math teacher for the whole school and team leader of one of the school's three "academies."

Breaking the school into three academies—the Ruby Bridges Academy, the Bill Cosby Academy, and the Ben Carson Academy—was one of Adderley's first organizational changes. Students are randomly assigned to the academies, each of which has kindergarten through sixth grades. The only difference in their curricula is that each student is expected to know something about the namesake of his or her academy. Also, the academies may have slightly different projects. In the fall of 2005, the whole school adopted a travel theme, for example, and each academy studied a particular area of the world—one academy chose Africa, another the British Isles, and the hallways and classrooms of each were filled with maps, artifacts, and paintings that the students were studying and preparing to explain to students in the other academies.

Adderley organized each academy to house all the grades because she wanted the older children to act as role models for the younger children. Also, teachers get to know the children in their academies even before they have them in their classrooms. "It becomes a family," Adderley said. To combat the separation that the three academies might cause, Adderley instituted a school-wide convocation outside the building every morning at 8:25 a.m., when children, teachers, administrators, and parents and guardians say the Pledge of Allegiance, sing a song such as "Lift Every Voice," and hold a moment of silence. A closing ceremony ends the day at 3:05 p.m. "It provides a time for the whole school to feel a sense of community," Taylor said. Teachers also have time to work together to ensure they do not become isolated in their academies. "Specials"—art, music, physical education, and computer classes, in addition to a weekly science lesson taught by a science teacher—are scheduled so that grade-level teachers across the academies can meet together to plan lessons.

Each academy has a team leader who works with classroom teachers to plan lessons, look at student data, work with small groups, provide model lessons, and help plan school- and academy—wide activities. The team leaders are colleagues of the classroom teachers, not supervisors. Their authority lies solely in their ability to be helpful to teachers.

The team leaders are also literacy, math, and science specialists. In many schools, math and literacy specialists are still classroom instructors. At Stanton, the lead teachers almost never do classroom instruction except when teaching a model lesson as an example for a teacher. "We're supposed to teach the teachers, not the students," says Taylor. For example, when a second-grade teacher's class consistently took more than 10 minutes to gather English Language Arts (ELA) materials for the literacy block, his lead teacher advised him to organize the materials ahead of time in bins so that the children could get immediately to work. "The ELA bins have cut down on wasted time," the teacher, Ted Smith, said.

During the restructuring process, Stanton had math and literacy coaches who came to the school to help guide instruction. They alternated weeks—one week of math, one of literacy. Their "all day, every day" presence, helping teachers plan, providing model lessons, and generally guiding teacher practice, Adderley said, "is something that has really supported going from corrective action to being just a regular school."

For the first two years Adderley was at Stanton, the district sent trainers to the school to provide focused professional development in the curriculum as well as training in such things as using student data to drive instruction. Now that Stanton has become one of the more successful schools in the city, the district has pulled back from its direct intervention, and it no longer requires particular training or professional development. Stanton is now in charge of designing its own professional development, and the leadership team at the school has decided to focus its attention on literacy. This reflects a need shown by the school's data: Although 16 percent of Stanton's students do not meet state math standards, 27 percent do not meet state reading standards.

Kathleen Shallow, who had taught kindergarten before Adderley arrived and is now the literacy lead teacher and an academy team leader, said that back when she was a classroom teacher, she had high expectations for her students and good control of the classroom, but, "I had no idea what to teach." A provision in the 2000–2004 contract between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the district called for the district to implement a common, detailed, grade-by-grade program of instruction. The new, citywide reading and math curriculum was introduced during the 2003–2004 school year; for the first time, all elementary schools in the city were working on the same material at the same time. In the 2005–2006 school year, the district added on a citywide social studies and science curriculum. Though some longtime teachers lament the loss of autonomy, they acknowledge that children who move frequently do not get as lost with the core curriculum. Children who transfer into Stanton are brought up to speed quickly.

Taylor agreed with Shallow that the training and professional development provided during restructuring helped focus the school on instruction. "I loved my kids. I believed I was successful. But we didn't look at the data." Today, teachers, team leaders, and the principal meet once a week to look at student work in a focused way to see whether or not students are meeting standards and to evaluate whether instruction needs to change. "In the past," Adderley said, "teachers looked at student work to grade it, put it up on the board, and discussed it with parents. But we never looked at it together."

At one of these meetings in the fall of 2005, second-grade teachers Ted Smith, Kimberly Gallagher, and Margo Pinckney met with literacy lead teacher Kathleen Shallow and math literacy teacher Christina Taylor, as well as principal Adderley, to discuss their students' progress in writing. Smith's class was working on using rich, specific details in their writing. Smith had assigned his students to write a poem about fall and said he was looking to see if "the kids are really seeing" what they wrote about. "I see the tree tops high up in the sky" was an image Smith liked in one of his student's writing. But other sentences were vague and flat. "I don't think he has a—I don't want to say clue, but he doesn't understand how to add detail," Taylor commented. Someone suggested giving students lists of descriptive words to offer them ideas about what details to add. Team leader Shallow suggested, "As you're reading [aloud], if there are descriptive words, point them out." Smith said he would try both suggestions.

Keeping the emphasis on teaching techniques and strategies means the discussion stays on instruction. "It's not about feeling sorry for kids," Adderley said. "It's about making sure that they understand what it is they're expected to do."

That work takes place every day in classrooms, as teachers lead the students in the day's reading as set out in the citywide curriculum and then work with small groups of students on specific skills as other students work at centers or related projects that teachers choose. If the reading is on Lou Gehrig, for example, students might work in small groups and independently on baseball math. Those projects are determined by the teachers in their grade-level meetings so that all students in a grade are working on the same content and expected to meet the same standards.

To make sure students are learning what is expected, teachers administer regular assessments, including short "checkpoint" tests every two weeks and districtwide "benchmark" tests every six weeks. Any child who is falling behind is identified, and is the subject of a meeting with teachers, Adderley, and the parents. The team leader will videotape a few minutes of the child while in the classroom so that all team members, including the parents, have a picture of how the child is functioning. They then agree to particular teaching strategies or interventions and meet again in 30 days to evaluate whether those interventions are working or whether others are needed.

The meeting room has an assessment wall that is covered with sticky notes, each note represents a child, color-coded by teacher, and arranged by reading level so that the faculty members have an instant read on the progress of all 487 children in the school, each of whom has an individual plan in place. In many schools, individual plans are done only for students identified as needing special education services, but at Stanton each student has one. Students who need special education services have more formal plans, known as Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and Stanton has roughly 25 such students. Although a few who cannot function in a regular classroom are in a self-contained classroom, the rest are included in the regular classrooms. Two special education teachers work in the classrooms—one in the younger grades and one in the older grades—to provide support to the students and the teachers. "As much as possible, we want special education students in regular ed classrooms," said Liz Baeringer, the head of special education services at Stanton. The special education teachers, who have additional training in different methods of reading and math instruction, teach model lessons and help teachers structure their lessons and work with struggling students, whether they are identified for special education or not. The city's core curriculum, she said, "works for my children and works for the teachers," especially because children in Philadelphia are so transient. "We want consistency and research-based instruction."

By keeping the focus on high-quality, fast-paced instruction with careful attention to anyone who needs it, Adderley said that less attention needs to be paid to discipline issues. Good instruction, she says, encourages good behavior. In addition, Stanton does a number of things to encourage students to be good school citizens. Teachers have "being good" tickets that they give children they see doing something nice for someone else, such as picking up a dropped pencil or performing some other type of good deed. Each ticket is worth 25 cents toward school supplies, such as notebooks or hole punchers, and each child who receives one is entered into a drawing for a monthly lunch with the principal. Every day a child is on time for school, he or she receives a ticket to enter a monthly raffle drawing for a large prize such as a bicycle or radio. In this way, Adderley said, the school promotes an atmosphere that rewards good behavior rather than simply punishing bad behavior. Throughout Philadelphia, all school staff members—including building service staff—received training in behavioral management so that they are part of the support team.

To build relationships with the students' parents, Stanton has a "community liaison" responsible for arranging meetings with parents whose children are struggling or who are consistently absent. "I'm the link between the home and the school," community liaison Sharon Stewart said. Among other things, Stewart attends truancy court once a month to testify against parents whose children do not regularly attend. She also arranges parenting classes on Friday mornings that include nutrition information and advice on how to shop at the supermarket, how to clean up bad credit, and other practical seminars.

Stewart's salary comes from Stanton's Title I money. Title I is the federal program targeted specifically to help poor children achieve at the same levels as non-poor children, and Stanton uses the money very strategically in ways agreed to by the staff in what Adderley describes as a "collaborative process." The bulk of it goes to pay for materials, books, and supplies, but Stewart's salary is included as part of the school's efforts to improve parental involvement, a goal of Title I. In addition, Title I funds go for afterschool and Saturday enrichment classes that are used to help students who are falling behind, as well as to provide extras, such as afterschool sign language instruction and teachers' professional development.

The district pays for a school nurse three days per week. Stanton uses its general funds to pay for the rest of the week. "I think it's important," Adderley said about extending the nurse's week, explaining that many of her students have asthma or other health problems that require monitoring and careful administration of medication, which the nurse can provide. The nurse also arranges for outside help for students. For example, she applied for the Eagle Eye Foundation (sponsored by the Philadelphia Eagles) to bring its bus, equipped with eye examination equipment, to give students eye exams and provide them with glasses if needed.

With all of its canny use of resources and its consequent successes, Stanton still faces enormous challenges. Hiring is one. In the fall of 2005, the sixth grade had two new teachers who, even though they were provided with what Adderley called "the best support we had to offer," didn't last the first week. That left Stanton scrambling to fill the positions with substitutes. Just as Adderley thought she had found a good long-term substitute, he didn't show up one day, forcing the school to scatter the students throughout the school in different classes. It was months before Adderley was satisfied that her sixth-graders had good teachers, months that she said hurt the students. And when the test results came in, they showed that she was correct. The 2006 data showed strong growth for the third grade, achievement that held stable for the fifth grade, but a disappointing performance for the sixth grade (only 52 percent of students were proficient or above in math, and just 16 percent were proficient or above in reading).

In part, this reflects that Stanton lost some of its previous year's fifth-graders to charter and magnet schools, as well as received quite a few new students. In addition, the sixth grade had substitute teachers for more than half of the school year. Since the curriculum completely changes between fifth and sixth grades, students need good instruction to score well on sixth-grade assessments.

As much as Stanton tries to keep the emphasis on instruction, the difficulties of the children's lives outside of school intrude regularly. Students are always jittery the day after a shooting in the neighborhood—tragedy is never far away. One day in November of 2005, a student died after his aunt gave him one of her pain pills in a misguided attempt to help him through an asthma attack. As difficult as these things are for the school community, however, none of it is allowed to stop the mission of the school: teaching and learning. Stanton demonstrates that when a school is carefully organized to make every minute, every lesson, and every child count, it can make enormous and sustained progress.

Karin Chenoweth is a longtime education writer who now writes for the Achievement Alliance. From 1999 to 2004 she was an education columnist for the Washington Post. Before that, she was senior writer and executive editor of Black Issues in Higher Education (now Diverse). This article is adapted from her book, "It's Being Done": Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, published by Harvard Education Press. For more information, visit or call 1-888-437-1437.

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American Educator, Summer 2007