Tucked away on Fourth Street under a green awning, students line up to go to school. Faculty and security staff walk the line inspecting students. Each one must be wearing black socks, black shoes and a black belt holding in his or her green polo shirt with Fairhill Community High School etched across the breast. Up the stairs students file through a metal detector and then off to their classes. This accelerated high school is home to 235 students who have dropped out or were at risk of dropping out of public schools around the city of Philadelphia. But this is more than a school of students and faculty, this is a family.
School Principal Brandon Grodnitzky walks the halls between classes. He knows every student’s name and situation. To one student he confirms a dentist’s appointment for later that day, another he congratulates on the progress her teachers have reported. For the rest he makes small talk as they move through the narrow corridors to their classes or the cafeteria.
The movement from class to class keeps the hallways and stairwells packed, students moving past one another brushing bags and polos. But there is no shoving, no yelling. That kind of behavior does not occur at Fairhill. In the five years since the school’s opening, there has not been a single fight. The strict uniform does not give students a chance to wear gang colors. There are homosexual students, but derogatory remarks are uncommon and dealt with swiftly by the staff.
The student body consists of at-risk youth from around the city many for whom violence and disobedience are a norm outside of school. At Fairhill they are given a second or third and often a last chance to graduate from high school.
Milagros Adorno, 18, is graduating from Fairhill in August. She is the president of student government, volunteers in the administrators’ offices and is the school’s ambassador to the Philadelphia Youth Network. At Fairhill she thrives with school “bling” adorning her lanyard. Each pin represents a different achievement, from honor roll, which she has made six times, to perfect attendance and a pin given to her special by Principal Grodnitzy. But not long ago she struggled at Edison High in North Philadelphia. “I started so good, made honor role,” Adorno said, “but there were teachers who just were not giving their all and I stopped going.”
Adorno came to Fairhill and found her place. Grodnitzky was her history teacher when she first came here. “He knew what I was capable of. He said that if I didn’t break out of my shell, I wouldn’t get anywhere.” And the pep talk worked. With graduation around the corner, Adorno, who is fluent in sign language, will be attending Community College of Philadelphia in the fall to be an interpreter. “I knew I was going to be something. I know I am going to be something.”
Not every student has such an ideal situation, but they all have the drive to succeed. “Our students decide if they come back,” said Grodnitzky over spring break, the halls of Fairhill unusually quiet. Though the attending students have a history of violence, poor attendance and even worse academic achievement, none of that presents a problem at Fairhill. “Our students have real problems; some are homeless or work two jobs.” Though there are only 35 documented student parents at Fairhill, Grodnitzky says realistically the number is closer to 140, or about 60 percent of the student body.
To accommodate, there is a daycare center for 15 children on the ground floor of the school and social workers who help students with any problems they encounter. “This place is different from anywhere the students have been,” said Samantha Rothey, a first-year history teacher at Fairhill. “A lot of them get culture shock and I’ve seen it go both ways: students who crave structure stay, and some don’t come back.” Rothey says more stay then go.
Jasmin Barada describes herself as an average student. She gets Bs and Cs, but she does her work and tries her best. Fairhill is the third high school for Barada, who left two other city high schools with truancy issues. “I was cutting school every day,” she said, sitting in Principal Grodnitzky’s office, “No one was checking on me.” When Barada’s second school, Roxborough High, failed to focus her energies, the Department of Human Services stepped in. “I had my first son at 13, and my second at 14, so I was placed in a ‘Mother Baby Program’ to learn life skills.” But it was not until her social worker told her about Fairhill that Barada took her education seriously.
“I was 17 and still in the ninth grade… then I realized Fairhill was my last resort.” At first Fairhill seemed like the other schools–too easy to forget and she began slipping back to her old habits. The staff noticed and the principal at the time pulled her aside.
“You think we’re going to let you fail? To leave without a diploma?” Barada had never been approached like that. She says that is when it all changed. That was in 2007. Barada, now 18, is set to graduate in January. “In other schools I was a student out of 500, they didn’t know me. Fairhill is like a family.”
With her older son in preschool and her younger son in Fairhill’s daycare, Barada’s attention is on her graduation and beyond. Along with every other student at Fairhill, she has worked with teachers and support staff to focus on life after school. The plan is to attend the Community College of Philadelphia for physical and massage therapy and eventually transfer to Temple for her bachelor’s degree.
Fairhill Community High School is one of many Multiple Pathways schools around the city catering to at-risk youth. In addition to accelerated schools such as Fairhill, Multiple Pathways schools include educational options programs, gateway to college bridge programs and neighborhood E3 programs. They work in part with Philadelphia’s Reengagement Center which opened its doors last year.
Faced with a rising dropout rate in the city, administrators requisitioned a study. The Unfulfilled Promise study looked at the statistics and causes behind dropout rates in the city. In 2003-2004, a total of 13,000 students became dropouts or near-dropouts, according to the study. Furthermore there were hundreds of students who were recorded as dropouts years before the 16-year age mark where school attendance becomes voluntary.
Majeedah Scott, assistant director for Multiple Pathways to Graduation works closely with dropouts and alternative education programs throughout the city. “The Unfulfilled Promise study put a face to Philadelphia’s dropout crisis,” Scott said. A number of recommendations came from the study and with them the city established a hotline for at-risk youth. That hotline grew to the Reengagement Center, which has placed 1,250 students in accelerated high schools throughout the city.
Mayor Michael Nutter has made education and the dropout rate a priority to his administration. Ami Patel is a policy assistant in the Mayor’s Office of Education. She said the mayor will not cut funding from these programs. “Right now the main thing is trying to tap into the economic stimulus dollars.” President Obama’s education plan is similar to Philadelphia’s “Imagine 2014,” which plans to increase student achievement, adult accountability and responsible resource allocation by 2014.
In the meantime, the students and staff and Fairhill Community High School continue to create a safe and family-like environment. It is impossible to walk through the halls without feeling the permeating sense of responsibility–the responsibility of teachers to be there for their students and for students to finally want to learn and graduate.