As the bell rang, Ramean Clowney shuffled through the narrow hallway in a bright blue shirt, laughing while clutching onto algebra and Italian textbooks. Before last Wednesday’s half-day dismissal, the halls reverberated with laughter as students exchanged jokes while greeting administrators. Despite having a rocky past, the bright smile on Clowney’s face made it clear that he had finally found a home to nurture his personal and academic success.
Clowney, 19, is a student at One Bright Ray Fairhill Community High School located at 2820 N. Fourth St. It is an alternative school where students who have dropped out of their conventional schools can get a second chance to earn their high school diplomas. “I just wasn’t making it in public schools,” Clowney said. “ Too much altercations, not able to focus, at home not having the support needed… so this was like a final option for me. And I had my goal set for graduating, and this was the place to come. It ended up being a perfect final option.”
Fairhill Community High School opened in 2004 as a project-based accelerated high school that serves 11th and 12th graders ages 16 to 22. The school serves students who have at least 10 high school credits and need to reach 23.5 in order to graduate. Fairhill High School’s sister school is the Megan Simpson building on 1142 E. Erie Ave., previously known as North Philadelphia Community High School. Both schools are under the auspices of One Bright Ray, a nonprofit, community-based organization that provides educational programs to underprivileged children and families.
Fairhill Community High School added One Bright Ray to its title in 2010 after the School District of Philadelphia enforced drastic budget cuts that necessitated teacher layoffs and a change in the school’s format. Each One Bright Ray campus used to serve 9th through 12th grades; now, 9th and 10th graders attend the Simpson campus, and 11th and 12th graders attend the Fairhill campus. Despite such budget cuts, the school continues to function as a place where struggling students can have a chance to succeed.
Although students at the school hail from different areas of Philadelphia, the virtues of a quality education are especially important for the residents of Fairhill. According to city-data.com, only 30.9 percent of Fairhill residents ages 3 and up are enrolled in K-12 schools, 60 percent have below a high school education and a mere 2.3 percent attend undergraduate colleges. Fairhill Community High School is trying to break the cycle of inadequate education by offering a structured environment where students can progress academically.
Students decide to attend the school for a myriad of reasons. Melissa Tuckey, the Educational Support Coordinator who manages special education, testing and independent student study projects, has seen students attend the school after being previously incarcerated or having multiple pregnancies, family problems or bullying issues. “Each individual student has a story,” Tuckey said. “But for the majority, their old schools aren’t working, and they want to be somewhere where they feel safe.”
Due to the students’ troubled pasts, the school upholds a strict no-nonsense policy, with detentions dealt due to lateness, uniform violations and behavioral disruptions. “When I do student interviews, the first thing they usually say is ‘I’m not learning anything in my school. I want to go somewhere where I’m going to be held accountable,’” Tuckey said. “And they know that because we make them meet the expectations, that’s why they’re able to be successful here.”
Clowney, a senior, is graduating in January with plans to attend college. He has attended many public high schools, but continuously floundered academically. He cited Fairhill High School as the only academic environment that is conducive to his academic progress. “I actually like this school of all the schools I’ve ever been to,” Clowney said. “Because when I first got here, it was like, you could tell it was strictly on a learning basis. When you walk past a classroom, you could see kids actually doing work. Teachers and staff have complete control over the school.”
Although the school follows the Philadelphia School District curriculum, the educational format offers extra chances to help students succeed. Each semester, or “module,” is comprised of two four-week sections. After four weeks, students complete a final project and receive final grades. The next Monday, the grade book is wiped clean, and students can start a fresh four-week period of learning. The two grades from both four-week periods are averaged to comprise their final grade. “Most students are basic or below basic,” Tucky said. “Some of them have missed multiple aspects of their education going along, so we try and provide, with the high school curriculum, everything we can to fill in the holes.”
Frances Maggio, an Italian teacher who has taught at the school for one year, modifies her lessons to create a more welcoming learning environment. “Personality wise, I’m a lot more loving,” Maggio said. “I’m a lot more affectionate with my words because some of my students don’t have that at home, that love at home.”
Maggio also encourages students to think in a broader context that extends beyond their own backyard. “I’ve heard time and time again, ‘Oh, I’ve learned so much, I would love to vacation in Rome or in Naples,’” Maggio said. “But that’s what I am hoping for. When they leave this school, I want them to understand that there’s a world outside Philadelphia.”
Hara Lampert, the school counselor, helps students navigate their journey into the real world. Lampert gives the school’s 183 students the support they need to pursue college, a job or vocational training. “I try to get them [students] out there and pique their interest, and get them motivated,” Lampert said. “A lot of them just don’t have that strong foundation or strong support, so we try to give that to them here.”
Sharlyn Sanchez, 17, a Fairhill resident who is graduating this January, benefits from the school’s strong support system. “If you need any type of help, whether it’s financially, whether it’s at home, with your kid… no matter what type of help you need, they’ll provide you with it,” Sanchez said. Sanchez, a mother of a two-year-old autistic child, takes her child to the high school’s on-site daycare program every day. Mothers also attend parenting classes to learn how to manage motherhood and academics.
Although she was an F student at her previous school, Sanchez is now flourishing academically. She has plans to attend One Bright Ray’s Harcum College this winter to study criminal justice. “I graduate Jan. 13th, and go to college the 17th,” Sanchez said. “The experience I will always take from here is that they [Fairhill Community High School] never hid reality from me. They always told me what I would face when I go out there in the real world.”
The school is successful in helping students make the leap to higher education. Last year, Fairhill High School had the top success rate of students enrolling in college out of all alternative Philadelphia schools. According to doleta.gov, 80 percent of One Bright Ray Fairhill Community High School students receive a high school diploma or GED, and 50 percent are placed in employment or post-secondary education.
Craig Wilson, 18, is a guitar player also graduating in January who has plans to pursue music education. “There’s a lot of college opportunities they offer here,” Wilson said. “If you want to go onto that next level, whether work or college, they really help you with that.”
Before Clowney sat down with Ms. Maggio to practice Italian, he agreed that Fairhill Community High School is indeed a community that helps him achieve his goals. “I recommend this school above all the rest,” Clowney said. “A lot of students or youth that, you know, didn’t make it in public schools and just felt like they needed to give up, I think that they should know about this school. (…) Because if you ain’t making it there, you’re bound to make it here.”