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At this West Philly charter, elementary schoolers travel as far away as Kenya and China

Global Leadership Academy takes students to Canada, Jamaica, and beyond. While the school has struggled academically in recent years, its leader says there's more to education than test scores.

First-grader K'or Goodman, 6, works on a drawing of King Tut's mask during art class at Global Leadership Academy Charter School in West Philadelphia last week. The school emphasizes exposure to international cultures and experiences.
First-grader K'or Goodman, 6, works on a drawing of King Tut's mask during art class at Global Leadership Academy Charter School in West Philadelphia last week. The school emphasizes exposure to international cultures and experiences.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

As seventh graders at the Global Leadership Academy Charter School translated code used by slaves traveling the Underground Railroad — “midnight” meant Detroit, and the “River Jordan” the Ohio — teacher Gregory Wright steered last week’s lesson beyond the classroom.

In a few weeks, "you'll be standing on top of the John Roebling Bridge" spanning that river, Wright told students.

He added, "Our ancestors didn't have no bridge. They had to risk their lives."

In a city where some schools struggle to send students on in-town field trips, the West Philadelphia K-8 charter school has taken students as far as Kenya and China.

Starting next month, students at the school and a second Global Leadership charter in Southwest Philadelphia will embark on a series of trips. Fifth graders will spend a night in Washington, while sixth graders will tour Atlanta, Memphis, and Birmingham.

In seventh grade, students get passports and head to Canada. Past eighth graders have visited Haiti and the Bahamas; this year, it’s Jamaica.

The school’s charter is up for renewal this year, and though it has lagged in academic performance, with an average math proficiency rate of 9 percent in 2017, CEO Naomi Johnson-Booker says she is confident that the School District will decide in its favor.

She attributed the low scores to a variety of circumstances, and pointed to the school’s popularity. The school, which enrolls 700, participated in a new online application system this year and received 3,500 applications, Johnson-Booker said. Global Leadership also is looking to add a 700-student high school.

“Children learn in lots of ways — it’s not just reading, writing, and math,” she said.

The trips are all tied to curriculum: Studying civil rights, students visit Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The Canada trip is linked to the Underground Railroad, and the Caribbean trip to the slave trade. In past years, selected groups of students have traveled to China and Kenya.

Beyond coursework, school leaders say, the travel is meant to build confidence in students — 58 percent of whom live in poverty, according to the School District, in which 74 percent of the students fall into that category. Nearly all of the charter’s students are black.

“I never wanted to travel, I was scared. Being a black Muslim girl, I had fear in me,” said Hanifa Savage, 14, in eighth grade at the school. Now, “I want to explore different cultures. ... I just want to meet more people.”

Johnson-Booker said the travel has impacted students in different ways. Some have felt more empowered to go away to college; others have been motivated to start community service initiatives.

Johnson-Booker, who spent several decades in the School District as a teacher and administrator, took over what is now Global Leadership from another charter operator in 2006. She reshaped the school’s mission based on her experience. The former School Reform Commission gave her a second school to manage, in Southwest Philadelphia, in 2016.

As a teacher in the district, Johnson-Booker recalled being told to teach students about Philadelphia using a “black and white primer — no pictures.”

She took them to the Liberty Bell, “so they could see something else other than the 10-block radius they live in.”

Johnson-Booker has focused on reducing an “exposure gap” between her students and more advantaged peers — a strategy she says is key to improving achievement.

Her school has struggled in recent years on academic proficiency measures. A 2017 evaluation by the School District’s charter office — which is responsible for overseeing the city’s 87 publicly funded but privately run charters — said the school did not meet standards.

Johnson-Booker said the charter’s student body had changed after a 2011 fire led to a relocation, and the addition of 200 students “from failing Philadelphia schools.” She also said that state assessments changed in 2014, and teachers had to be retrained.

“A test does not totally define you. There are other things that make a person,” Johnson-Booker said.

Inside the school, students are repeatedly exposed to its global theme: from clocks above the front desk displaying times in Denver, Johannesburg, Sydney, to flags hanging from the gym ceiling and photos from past student trips in the hallways.

On average, the trips cost $1,000 per student — less for Atlanta, more for Jamaica, Johnson-Booker said. The school subsidizes some of the cost through fundraisers, though families pay the bulk.

Johnson-Booker hopes to build on an endowment that will shift that balance, though “I think you need to pay something," she said. While she doesn’t want cost to prohibit any student from traveling, she said, she doesn’t want to “create a mindset” for students that the trips are free.

Several students said they were grateful for the experiences, which they said offered not just education but the chance to bond with classmates.

Savage, the eighth grader, was looking forward to traveling to Jamaica soon. “To think that people I know” went to even farther-away destinations “is crazy,” she said.

“I just feel blessed," she said. "Like I have some kind of privilege.”