THREE YEARS ago, Tilden Middle School was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. As one of more than 50 schools in the Philadelphia School District snared in a cheating scandal, Tilden's scores on state standardized tests were invalidated. Its principal was transferred and later fired. The school was in turmoil.
But administrators, faculty and staff at the school, at 66th Street and Elmwood Avenue, in Southwest Philly, again are dreaming big. And they're getting closer to making those dreams reality.
Tilden was among four schools selected for the district's first School Redesign Initiative, which allows educators to come up with innovative plans to boost achievement. Along with Tilden, the other schools selected were Arthur Elementary, in Southwest Center City; Carnell Elementary, in Oxford Circle; and J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences, in Chestnut Hill. Each school will get a $30,000 planning grant and can take the next nine months to prepare for implementation in September.
"For quite some time here at the school we've had struggling [test] scores," second-year principal Brian Johnson said, "and to keep banging our heads against the wall and keep doing what we've been doing just doesn't seem like an effective practice. You've got to try something different."
Tilden's redesign blueprint focuses on blended learning technology, which combines direct instruction from teachers with online-based lessons. Advocates say that the model allows teachers to customize instruction for students based on individual needs and aptitude, and lets students do what they do best - use technology.
Johnson saw the benefits of blended learning while working with high-school students in the Cheltenham Township School District. The district incorporated the model into a night-school program to help students who struggled in a traditional school setting.
"I found that it [allowed] students to kind of move at their own pace," he said. "I found that students who had not attained success in, let's say, Algebra II were able to finally see themselves having some math success and they were able to get through Algebra [I], geometry and Algebra II over the span of three years."
Johnson hopes to achieve a similar turnaround at Tilden. Last year, only 16 percent of its students scored proficient or better in math, and just 28 percent in reading, on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments.
And like all district schools, Tilden is operating in a time of austerity. The school received an additional 300 students a year ago following the closure of Shaw and Pepper middle schools, causing several classes to swell to more than 30 students, putting a strain on personnel.
Along with the redesign, there is other good news at Tilden. The school has adopted a system that rewards students with cash for good behavior, thanks to a partnership with a nonprofit organization, which has contributed to a drop in the number of serious incidents, Johnson said.
Johnson, 39, a Penn State graduate, said he has noticed a shift in attitude at Tilden this year. A year ago, the school applied for a school-improvement grant from the state, but fell short. Johnson spent nights and weekends poring over the data, and described the application process as "pedaling that bike by myself." But the School Redesign Initiative was drastically different, he said.
"This opportunity came about and I had our staff members calling me left and right saying they were interested in it," Johnson said.
"One of the things that you learn is that [when] you have folks that are interested in something, then let's bring them together and see if we can't move in the right way, so we're all pedaling this bicycle at the same time."
Special-education teacher Margaret Salvante was one of those who contacted Johnson when she saw the request for proposals for the Redesign Initiative. She had worked on a similar project in New York City and saw the redesign as a chance for the school to gain some autonomy.
"Right now we're trying to put initiatives in place, but we're very encumbered by a lot of district mandates, so we're trying to do two things at once," Salvante said.
Johnson, Salvante and several other faculty members and parents put together the proposal and eagerly submitted it to the district. Even after making it to a final round of interviews, Johnson said he was prepared in case they were not selected.
Then the good news came.
"There is still an excitement," he said, "but also reality that there's a lot of hard work to get to this point and it's going to be two-, three-, fourfold to even get to the point where we're ready for the 2015-16 school year to open up as a blending learning model."
Among the 24 action items that the school must check off are training teachers on blended learning, selecting teacher coaches and, naturally, acquiring the technology - one tablet or laptop for each student. The latter item is the biggest hurdle.
Tilden received some computers thanks to a donation from comedian and Philly native Kevin Hart, and received a few tablets from a nationwide contest, but a lot more investment is needed.
The workload isn't about to deter Salvante and her peers, who have soldiered on despite a lack of resources.
"We have the talent and we have the support now from the district by way of this Redesign Initiative," she said, "so now all it's going to take is for us to get it done."