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Five Philly schools stand to get millions of dollars for ‘beating the odds’

“Maybe this is the way that we’re going to start scaling really good practices in schools," said Stacy Holland, executive director of Elevate 215.

Juniata Park Academy, shown in this 2021 photo, is one of five Philadelphia traditional public and charter schools that stands to receive millions for "beating the odds" in educating city kids. The grants are being made by Elevate 215, a nonprofit that raises and distributes money for Philadelphia public, private and charter schools.
Juniata Park Academy, shown in this 2021 photo, is one of five Philadelphia traditional public and charter schools that stands to receive millions for "beating the odds" in educating city kids. The grants are being made by Elevate 215, a nonprofit that raises and distributes money for Philadelphia public, private and charter schools.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Five city schools will get millions to further their work “beating the odds” — accelerating student progress in schools that have diverse populations and educating large numbers of children living in poverty.

The grants were to be announced Monday by Elevate 215, a nonprofit that has raised and distributed more than $100 million to Philadelphia public, private, and charter schools over the last decade.

Three Philadelphia district schools and two charters will get $50,000 planning grants, then implementation grants of up to $275,000 annually for at least three years. The schools are Juniata Park Academy, a K-8; Morton McMichael Elementary, a pre-K-8 in West Philadelphia; Middle Years Alternative, a 5-8 in West Philadelphia; Pan American Academy Charter School, a K-8 in Fairhill, and Alliance for Progress Charter School, a K-8 in North Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has been attempting school improvement for decades, and the goal was to use data to find bright spots and build on them, said Stacy Holland, Elevate 215′s executive director.

The revamped organization, formerly known as Philadelphia School Partnership, has sharpened and shifted its mission and is now focused on modernizing learning experiences and elevating strong educational practices, Holland said. (The organization has taken heat in the past for what some said was furthering educational inequities.)

Elevate 215 scrutinized a decade’s worth of data, arriving at a group of 35 traditional public and charter schools that beat expected outcomes in either student achievement or growth. The organization chose five from that group for its initial awards.

The aim is to take the schools’ positive trajectory “and actually replicate it,” Holland said. “Maybe this is the way that we’re going to start scaling really good practices in schools.”

Elevate 215 projects it will spend $41 million on up to 50 “Beating the Odds” grants over five years.

The initial funds for the first five awardees will cover four to six months of work, with administrators and teachers firming up ideas for “the high-leverage practice they can implement to move student achievement,” Holland said.

At Juniata Park Academy, the focus is on establishing and maintaining strong school climate and culture, said principal Marisol Rivera Rodriguez. The school also plans to prioritize “professional learning communities” — daily, grade-specific, teacher-led groups that build educator efficacy.

“The planning grant is going to help us leverage our strengths to propel our school moving forward,” said Rodriguez. “The pandemic did hit us hard.”

That is: Juniata Park Academy shone over the last decade in large part because of its intentional focus on what school feels like for students. It was an early adopter of restorative justice practices, first with its middle school, then with elementary grades.

But COVID-19 meant that a chunk of one school year and another full school year were essentially fully remote, and that disrupted more than just students’ learning. The process of rebuilding a strong school culture is still underway, said Rodriguez, and the grant will help the school in those efforts.

“We can reimagine what our students’ needs are now,” said Rodriguez. “We had to make some structural changes within our school — we’re looking at what kind of supports our students need, starting with social emotional needs.” Juniata Park has three school counselors, and instead of deans of discipline, it has deans of restorative practices.

Principal Shakae Dupre of MYA — Middle Years Alternative — knows her school, which accepts students from every neighborhood in the city, excels at “growing kids.” It does that through bombarding them with opportunities: every middle-school sports offering there is, Algebra I for all, clubs galore, and more.

The Elevate 215 grant, Dupre said, will allow the school to be more intentional about its practice, and to dream a little bigger. MYA had offered foreign-language instruction but had to cut it because of a tough budget year, for instance. Dupre can’t offer music classes daily — what if she had the opportunity to run an orchestra, band, and drumline?

With the Elevate 215 money, “we want to blow those opportunities up and create the first full CTE program for middle school in the city of Philadelphia,” Dupre said of career and technical education opportunities. She thinks high school is too late for students to settle into figuring out who they want to be. By letting them explore careers earlier, that will help in the high school selection process and beyond, she said.

The money is wonderful, Dupre said. But the recognition is nearly as important.

“It’s a huge deal to me and my school community,” said Dupre. “Achievement and proficiency is what gets noticed, but the significance of acknowledging schools that have figured out how to move kids, that’s more powerful.”