Music boomed out of speakers, as clutches of the Memphis Street Academy (MSA) parents and children who came to take part in its third annual carnival milled around the juice and snack stand, took raffle tickets and participated in the sack race.
“It’s really just a culminating event for the school year. We had a great year,” Principal and CEO Antoinette Powell said.
In addition to celebratory activities, local employers on a talent search set up stand, and the school sponsored a book giveaway.
Despite the festivities, stress lines are showing at the MSA, where 76 percent of students are defined as economically disadvantaged by the Philadelphia Charter School Office.
That statistic comes from the Office’s Renewal Recommendation Report, the same report that recommended the MSA for non-renewal of its charter.
The report cited a litany of issues, most seriously a lack of academic progress in math and science, as measured by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), a state exam given to every student in grades three to eight.
Low staff retention, non-compliance with the Sunshine Act, and food safety issues were also noted, amongst other concerns.
Members of the MSA community that Spirit News spoke to, including parents and teachers at the carnival, defended their school, arguing that robust, but hard to quantify, improvements in school climate had been made, and that, even in the actual numbers, growth was evident.
37 percent of students attend class 95 percent of the time, for example. In 2013, only 19 percent of students had attended class 95 percent of the time. The daily average attendance rate is 91 percent, up in 2013 from 84 percent.
Using the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS), which measures how students with the same scores track relative to each other over time, MSA students are performing well, meaning that their scores have progressed more than other students who started off scoring similarly.
Perhaps just as importantly, student conduct is much better now, according to Melissa Reese, a communications specialist at Sylvia Marketing and Public Relations, which is representing the school.
“They used to have cops stationed during recess. Kids would just run wild,” she said.
The improvements were not bolts of luck – American Paradigm Schools, the parent company of the MSA, knew when they took over the school as part of a city initiative to help troubled schools that transforming the middle school would take work.
Cameras have been installed to defuse student conflict before it becomes violent. An attendance program was launched so that parents know when their child was cutting class. Guidance counselors were brought in and a social worker was retained to provide extra-academic support to families. A behavior rating system was launched, which rates student conduct.
“The kids like being here, they like the rating system,” Bridget Cole, a sixth grade math and science teacher who has been working at the MSA for three years, said.
“It’s such a positive transformation,” she added, since her first year at the MSA.
“If they changed this school back to the school it used to be, that’s going to be a big problem for my child,” Regina Ruffin, a parent at the carnival, said, citing bullying concerns.
“They have very good activities for my child, they tutor my child, there’s a lot of things he can achieve at this school,” she added.
The School Reform Commission (SRC) meets on June 15th, where they may vote on the Charter School Office’s recommendations.
“That could possibly determine the fate of Memphis,” Principal Powell said.
If the SRC votes for non-renewal, Memphis will be scrutinized again, before a second, final vote, in a process that can take up to a year, according to Principal Powell. The school will revert to its previous life as John Paul Jones Middle School if both votes come down against the MSA.
“I’m not worried that the school will not be here next year. I’m just concerned about what that will look like,” Principal Powell said.
In the meantime, the school is stepping up its efforts to rise up to meet the city’s expectations. An early literacy initiative at the MSA’s feeder schools will be offered, the CEO and Principal position will be separated, and teachers will receive more training.
Powell said that, since she received the Charter School Office’s notice, “it created a sense of urgency around the changes we need to make.”
“We’ve been fighting,” she added.