Extra Credit at McMichael

The kindergartener at Morton McMichael School could only recognize four letters of the alphabet. If the girl did not master her letters, this most basic of skills, in the remaining few weeks of the academic year, her chance at reading — and ultimately success in school and life — would be at grave risk.

“She didn’t know the ‘ABC’ song either,” says Olivia Jost, a fourth-year student in the School of Education (SoE) at Drexel, who was helping the child.

“That was very surprising to me. … If a child doesn’t know her letters by kindergarten, literacy spirals down. It’s very hard to get the student back on track,” Jost says.

For five weeks during the spring 2013 term, Jost and classmates in a special education course traveled four blocks north of campus once a week to the K-8 school in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia as part of Drexel’s University-Assisted Schools initiative. There, they worked one-on-one with kindergarteners and first-graders struggling with reading while their professor observed and offered guidance.

All of the McMichael students made progress. By the end of the intervention, the kindergartener who knew only four letters had mastered all but two.

“It was really awesome,” says Jost, who was motivated by the experience to pursue a special education certification in addition to her PreK-4 credentials.

What is the University-Assisted Schools effort?

University-Assisted Schools is the SoE’s initiative to support the University’s surrounding community, particularly the families enrolled at McMichael and nearby Samuel S. Powel Elementary School in Powelton Village.

In 2011, the SoE began applying funds from a $1 million grant from PECO toward the initiative. Since then, 44 percent of the grant has gone toward enriching education, improving culture and adding resources at Powel; 25 percent was dedicated to developing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program for middle school students in the Mantua and Powelton Village neighborhoods; and 21 percent went toward supporting McMichael’s designation as a Promise Academy, improving math and literacy for students, and providing professional development for teachers.

“There’s a strong possibility that we’re going to give students the opportunity to read and do math by the time they leave first grade, which could change their trajectory,” says James E. Connell, associate professor of special education and clinical director and research fellow at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, who works with University-Assisted Schools.

Since the partnership was announced, Drexel students have been involved in helping to reimagine the building and playground. At McMichael, interior design faculty and students have spent over two years planning and designing a playground to replace equipment that burned down several years ago, with hopes of raising final funding and breaking ground in the early fall. Robotics students are planning to work with the school’s new science program.

Meanwhile, SoE students are assessing and tutoring children at both schools, and SoE faculty members are offering advice on best practices to support classroom teachers as well as the vision of each school’s principal.

“It’s really a holistic effort,” says Marsha Besong, project manager for University-Assisted Schools. The end goal, she says, is single minded: advance academic achievement.


“It seems logical that Drexel and Mantua would work together to not only fulfill President Fry’s mission of the most civically engaged university in the country, but also as a moral obligation.”
— Director of the School of Education’s Educational Administration
Allen Grant


New leadership at McMichael

Nowhere, perhaps, is improving academics more important than at McMichael.

While Powel, a K-4 school, has long been considered a “neighborhood jewel,” McMichael has faced more challenges. Drexel’s support helps Powel continue to offer a strong education to its 230 students. Plans for a STEM program will only bolster that effort.

At McMichael, however, the strategies are different, says Tina Q. Richardson, associate dean of academic affairs for the School of Education. The K-8 school with 520 students, the vast majority African American from low-income households, has long struggled with test scores. McMichael Principal Brian Wallace, hired in the summer of 2013, has the task of turning around the school.

“McMichael is a school that over the past five years has been very low-achieving,” Wallace says. On the PSSAs, roughly 75 percent of McMichael students perform below grade level on math and reading, he says. In addition, the school has struggled with “climate issues,” including student behavior.

Many families in Mantua send their children to charters or parochial and private schools because of McMichael’s poor reputation. Before Wallace’s appointment, its student body had dwindled.

“[Local families and students] have been disappointed for so many years,” says Gwen Morris, team leader for the Education Subcommittee of the Mantua Civic Association. “They don’t trust that the school has changed or is turning around.”

The partnership with Drexel is a major step toward bringing families back.

“I think Drexel is doing a tremendous job,” says Morris, who also praises the principal.

Last year, Wallace went door-to-door in the community to recruit the 323 students who enrolled and convince the neighborhood that change was on its way.

McMichael’s association with Drexel “screams positive, screams motivation and screams a sense of excellence,” Wallace says. “I view it as a huge opportunity for the students to receive resources to help them get the best education possible.”

This year, the school has more than 500 students — partly because of another school closure, but also because of Wallace’s efforts.

The new principal’s first order of business was to transform the climate and culture. It included both small and big initiatives. Wallace, who has pledged to remain at the school over the long haul, has started saying, “Welcome to the Top,” playing off the area’s historical name of the Bottom. Drexel helped to create a positive-behavior incentive plan, which freed Wallace to focus on the quality of instruction.

In addition, Drexel pays for Playworks Philadelphia to oversee socialized recess that focuses on inclusivity. Students now take recess one class at a time and return to class with fewer behavior issues. Playworks also frees teachers to plan lessons and share ideas during a one-hour prep period.

Wallace notes that by the second week of the 2013–14 year, no students had been suspended, “which is remarkable,” he says. At this point the year before, about 10 suspensions had taken place. By the end of the school year, the school recorded only six “serious incidents,” which can include slips and falls. That’s a significant drop from the 22 serious incidents that were logged during the 2011-12 school year. Wallace says the decrease can be attributed to a combination of things: the administration, new teaching staff, Drexel’s influence and the implementation of a positive behavior plan.

Saved from the chopping block

McMichael’s improvements are all the more remarkable because the school reopened its doors just a little over a year ago. Just last spring, as the School District of Philadelphia struggled with deepening deficits, McMichael was one of the schools that the School Reform Commission slated for closure.

In the end, the school was spared through the tireless efforts of the McMichael Community, Home and School Association, a group that Drexel helped establish. The association formulated an improvement plan that included a long list of Drexel-provided resources.
McMichael also was designated a Promise Academy, which drove additional School District of Philadelphia resources to the school and allowed the principal to make hiring decisions. All but six classroom teachers were replaced, Wallace says.

As the report to the School Reform Commission noted, “The community, working with Drexel support, is slowly compensating for years of inattention.”

The University has already played a critical role in reopening McMichael’s library, which had been shuttered for years, its books in boxes. In 2012, the University’s Library Sciences Department weeded the collection and raised funds for new books. The library now serves as the academic heart of the school.

Since 2011, Drexel also has invested in more than a dozen other areas at McMichael and has opened discussions with Mural Arts, Philadelphia Zoo and other community partners. SoE faculty members observe classroom practices, Drexel donates refurbished computers and helps refresh the walls with partner banners, and Drexel faculty and McMichael teachers brainstorm academic projects.

Going forward, Drexel has made commitments to professional development, literacy and even nutrition.

“Drexel said, ‘Here’s what we’re willing to give McMichael if McMichael were to stay,'” Wallace says. “I think that held a lot of power.”

Turning a new Page

Of all of the changes wrought at McMichael, the most important are those that improve the education of the children.

One strategy at McMichael is a “Response to Intervention” program, which focuses on instructional support to help lagging students. It is an alternative to the ability-achievement discrepancy model, which identified students as learning disabled based on gaps between student IQ and achievement in grades and standardized assessments.

“The old model for identifying who was at risk was faulty,” says the A.J. Autism Institute’s Connell. “It was a broken model that resulted in disproportionate placement of minority students in special education classes, particularly for learning disabilities.”

At McMichael, SoE students are screening children three times a year, identifying those at risk and then beginning instruction from the level at which the student shows proficiency. Based on how the child responds to the core curriculum, he or she is given additional support in either small groups (Tier 2) or in one-on-one tutoring sessions (Tier 3).

“Schools like McMichael do not have resources to do Tier 2 or Tier 3,” Connell says. Drexel is trying to bridge the gap and ensure that students have access to a high-quality and evidence-based curriculum, he says.

In one intervention, Drexel students worked with first-graders — most could only read four to five words a minute, Connell says. (Students at that grade level should read 40 to 60 words a minute, he says.) They also struggled with addition and subtraction.

“The whole grade was at risk,” Connell says. In a month of work with Drexel, the McMichael children improved from four to five words a minute to 15 to 20 words a minute. “That was in one month,” Connell says. “Kids who couldn’t add or subtract learned to. We had them adding and subtracting 15, 17 problems in two minutes.”

Those results might look extraordinary at first glance. But as Connell notes, it really is not — or at least should not be. “Little kids who are ready to learn, eager to learn, will learn, provided they have evidence-based intervention and high-quality instruction. We know what works. It’s a question of having the resources.”

Lori Severino, program director for SoE’s Special Education program, has had her students also work on reading skills. “The kids that don’t have [reading] skills by the end of kindergarten will notice significant delays in third and fourth grades,” Severino says. “It’s so critical.”

Jost, one of her students, also worked with a boy who struggled with identifying nonsense words. “He was very smart,” Jost says, attributing his low assessment score to instructional as well as focus issues. The child “went from nonsense words to writing sentences to reading a little bit.”

While the partnership has not led to improved PSSA test scores yet, Wallace is hopeful of progress this year and next.
But in other arenas, Drexel’s input has already paid big dividends.

“Our climate, even though we have a long way to go, is a lot better than it’s ever been,” Wallace says. “Because [of that], the students are more focused, more on task, the product that is being delivered by the teachers is higher, and the product that is being exhibited by the students is a lot better.”

As important, he says, Drexel has made school enjoyable for hundreds of children.

“Motivating students, that’s hard work,” he says. “That’s really what the partnership helps me do that I couldn’t do by myself. The kids know a lot of the stuff that motivates them and makes school fun comes from Drexel.”

At the same time, Drexel students who visit McMichael and Powel have access to living laboratories.

“Students are researching techniques and learning techniques, and then implementing them,” Severino says. “It benefits everyone. The schools that have a high need for extra help and the kids who might need support and tutoring, we can offer that. We’re helping them solve a problem without cost. And our students are getting a great, hands-on experience.”

Another Drexel education student, third-year Caroline Dodds, worked with a first-grader over nine weeks who was initially frustrated with reading, but then improved enough to handle excerpts in the Magic Tree House series.

“I love it,” she says of the experience. “It’s so rewarding.”

Dodds, who originally planned to teach high school English, has decided to pursue PreK-4 certification.

For some, the relationship is not only a labor of love, but also an imperative, given the state of public education in Philadelphia.

“There really hasn’t been a more troubling time,” says Vera J. Lee, assistant clinical professor of literacy studies at the School of Education. “The partnerships are critical, in the sense of supporting what the principals do, providing equitable access and support to curriculum.”

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Two years ago, the School District of Philadelphia slated Morton McMichael School in Mantua for closure. Since then, an infusion of funds and faculty support from Drexel University has helped to restore faith in the struggling school.