Fixing Bartram High is a daunting project

Posted: April 06, 2014

PHILADELPHIA How do you begin to fix a school in chaos?

For seven months, Bartram High School has festered, with more students, fewer staff, and a growing culture of lawlessness that led a student to knock a staffer unconscious.

Since then, the Philadelphia School District has tried to make fixes, adding four city and school police officers, dispatching teams to assess and improve building conditions, and hiring a respected troubleshooter as co-principal.

But acknowledging that they can't police their way to an improved school culture, district officials have also asked the International Institute for Restorative Practices to step tin.

The Bethlehem, Pa., organization stresses a proactive approach to school climate - building relationships to prevent conflict rather than just reacting to bad behavior. The program has led to real change at several tough urban schools, most notably West Philadelphia High, before administrative upheaval at that school several years ago.

Bartram was actually one of 10 city schools the organization had received a grant to do work in, beginning in September.

But Ted Wachtel, president of the organization, said, "It reflects the worst-case scenario of what happened this year."

That is: When trainers began fanning out to do work in schools - chosen because they were to receive students from closing schools - "there wasn't anyone to train" at Bartram, Wachtel said.

A principal hired from out of state to take the helm at the school didn't start until late in the summer and lasted less than two weeks.

A training session was held at Bartram in February, Wachtel said, but bad weather meant many staffers were unable to attend.

So the group's heralded work of making students accountable for their behavior never got a chance to take root. Combined with the leadership turmoil, reductions in staff, and other factors, the deck was stacked against Bartram.

But once climate-resolution specialist Alphonso Stevenson was knocked out by a student on March 21, district officials asked for the organization's help.

A Restorative Practices trainer spent Friday at the school, and Wachtel said there was much work to do.

Violence continues in Bartram hallways, where a brawl broke out Tuesday, and groups of students still cut classes freely. The student who attacked Stevenson was back at school this week, roaming the hallways and entering classrooms he wasn't supposed to be in.

The boy, who was not supposed to be back in class, was eventually discovered by the administration and has been removed from the school.

First, Wachtel said, "you have to do the traditional stuff - police, things like that - just to restore order to the building. You don't have the kid who beat up the staff person wandering around the school. That's demoralizing. Kids need to know that people are taking care of them."

Though his organization is "not really set up for crisis management," Wachtel said, once things calm down a bit, the plan is to institute a whole-school change program of building relationships between students, staff, and the larger community. Plans will be written specifically for Bartram.

Eventually, the aim is to push the program out to the neighborhood at large.

"People haven't bought in yet," Wachtel said. "Buying in takes time. We're building relationships and community - that takes a while, and that's OK."

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