Bartram High

John Bartram was born in 1699 and died in 1777. He was a Quaker who lived in Philadelphia and became famous as a botanist. He studied through out his life time but only possessed a high school formal education. Fast forward to the 20th century and the Philadelphia School District felt moved to name a high school after Bartram, probably as a symbol of what a common man could accomplish.

John Bartram High School is making news for other reasons today.

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front page story this week (March 31, 2014) on John Bartram High School. The story offered big clues why “fixing education” is so divisive and to date, so illusive.

We hear it is the teachers’ fault, or the Union is the cause, or the cure all, schools need more money. We also hear it is the parents’ fault, or that sports have become too important, or that the school year is not long enough. While no one seems to have a fix that works for all students, we do not lack for claims of how to improve education.

Since many of those who claim they know how to fix education are serious and sincere individuals, one is prompted to think that maybe what needs to be fixed is not the same in all schools. Maybe there isn’t one comprehensive fix that if applied to all schools would improve education. John Bartram High School represents one extreme that presents conditions and outcomes not found in Private, Charter, and suburban schools. Adoption of “common core curriculum” will not make a mark on Bartram.

Bartram High has 1000+ students in grades 9-12. At any time, there are 17% of these students absent. Students are suspended at a rate of over 1 per day. Test scores show that 10% can pass math and 23% can pass reading. The demographics show 100% of Bartram’s students come from economically disadvantaged families, 23% have physical disabilities, and 98% are considered minorities.

Private schools do not accept this enrollment cross section. Charter schools (those that are serious about education) would require increased funding if it were to try and educated the 23% with physical disabilities. It is not wild speculation that if absenteeism were to be improved, suspensions would need to increase. And teaching to the test is a losing strategy with Bartram High.

The enrollment in Bartram High reflects its local community. This suggests the dismal education results reflect a greater community problem. Simply throwing money at this situation seems as ineffective as the opposite strategy of cutting education funding.

I would think that that city officials need to throw out the politically correct book and declare an emergency. Somehow school teachers and administrators have to make Bartram’s environment safe and feel different from the local community. They must send the message to the students that the teachers and administrators care about the students. (Full year school operation might actually be a plus by minimizing the time the local community has to influence the students.)

One might think that City and State authorities would recognize the root problem is economically devastated communities. And they very well may. The greater problem is how to fix the devastation.

There is no shortage of local groups who would gladly accept City and State money in the name of economic revival only to pocket as much as possible. The trick is to find organization who will spend funds wisely and with complete transparency.

I would look to Universities and major employers who would volunteer to take on this additional (but fully funded) task… somewhat akin to major companies and universities who worked for the Government during WWII.

I wonder whether John Bartram namesake will stimulate a fresh approach to this American tragedy.

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