South Philly school set example for district's new discipline policy

Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, principal of Andrew Jackson Elementary School, walks in front of the Table of Diversity Mural in her school. Kaplan was ahead of the curve in moving away from a zero-tolerance disciplinary policy.
Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, principal of Andrew Jackson Elementary School, walks in front of the Table of Diversity Mural in her school. Kaplan was ahead of the curve in moving away from a zero-tolerance disciplinary policy. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 06, 2012

THERE WAS A TIME, not too long ago, when South Philadelphia's Andrew Jackson Elementary School had a reputation for being unsafe, violent even.

"It was depressing as all get- out," said parent Marina Stamos, who lives near the school, on 12th Street near Federal. She described the three-story building as "dark, yucky, prison-looking."

Now tile murals decorate portions of the nearly 90-year-old structure. The front gardens are spruced up. Parts of the school's exterior were given a fresh coat of paint in 2010.

"When you come to school, walking up to a building like that as opposed [to a neglected one], to me it creates a more positive environment before I walk through the door," said Chris Argerakis, Jackson's music director since 2008.

Inside, there's school spirit painted in the hallways, with Jaguar mascots holding up their paws. New plant boxes are being installed in a green space on the roof with plans to link them to the science and math curricula.

Community members and district officials thank principal Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan for the new attitude at the K-8 school. Her approach includes a fresh take on discipline that has helped to establish a safe environment in a culturally diverse school and is spreading across the city.

Kaplan is one of 249 principals districtwide preparing their schools for a year during which they hope students and teachers can feel secure. City public schools welcome students back from summer break on Friday.

The new Student Code of Conduct, passed by the School Reform Commission this summer, emphasizes intervention and prevention and relies less on zero-tolerance enforcement.

Earlier this month at a three-day summit for principals and assistant principals on building safe classroom cultures, incoming Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he wanted families "to have every confidence that our schools are safe havens for their children."

He's preaching to the choir with Kaplan, who implemented a prevention- and intervention-oriented discipline policy when she arrived at Jackson in 2010.

"We are here to teach [students] valuable lessons, and they are here to make mistakes," Kaplan said recently inside her sun-filled office. "Our job, I feel, is to reflect upon those mistakes and to change their behavior so they don't make the same mistakes over and over again."

Kaplan reached out to parents, made herself visible around the school and community, secured hard-to-find resources and set up community partnerships.

"I know that I have been working very, very hard to assure folks in the neighborhood that Jackson is a very safe school," Kaplan said, "and that we really are going above and beyond the safety and well-being of the children."

Stamos used to watch kids near the school acting "rough" with each other, and she wondered, "Is this what Jackson produces?"

Years later, the same kids are thriving in Argerakis' band.

"The kids that I see are totally turned around, enjoying the school," Stamos said.

The school made Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time in seven years in Kaplan's first year, and students' PSSA scores ranked above the district average in all but one category.

Student and teacher attendance also increased.

"It's the typical story of how a principal really sets the tone for the school," said Stamos, 48, whose son Theo will enter second grade this fall. "They're the leader on so many levels."

Stamos pointed to mentoring, the school's arts, music and after-school Spanish and Mandarin classes - as well as English instruction for parents.

Kaplan's staff says she sets an "upbeat" and "positive" tone that flows down to teachers, staff and students.

That includes Kaplan's code of conduct, known as Positive Attitude Wins Success, or PAWS, implemented in 2010.

Suspensions decreased to 48 in that year, down from 61 in 2009-10.

Kaplan said the downward trend was interrupted by the district's exploding budget crisis last fall. Suspensions spiked to 68 when Jackson's lone school officer was reassigned to a high school in November.

(The district had 45,527 total suspensions in that time, an average of about 184 per school.)

Kaplan's key support staff - the full-time parent ombudsman and student-adviser positions - were also eliminated in the cuts.

The combination of Kaplan calling the district daily since the officer's removal and school officials noting the higher number of suspensions yielded results. The district authorized Jackson to participate in an officer-share program, although it's unclear how many days a week Jackson will have the school police officer.

"I knew having that presence was important," Kaplan said of officers, who are the only staff authorized to physically remove a child from class or the school. "It's a visual [for the student] that 'I better check my behavior.' "

Parent Angelica Victoriano, 26, who has two children at the school, said that there was hardly any parent involvement under the previous principal's term.

"The kids didn't have respect" for adults, Victoriano said in Spanish.

Victoriano, whose children Luis, 6, and Karen, 11, attend Jackson, tried to set up meetings with the previous principal, but two appointments were canceled.

She said school staff seemed bothered when she would ask for an English-language interpreter.

"You could see the difference," Victoriano said of Kaplan. "She meets with us; she asks us what do we want to see in the school. Everybody's more confident to speak to her."

Contact Regina Medina at or 215-854-5985. Follow her on Twitter @ReginaMedina.

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