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Memphis Street Academy rally in front of The School District of Philadelphia building. Photo Credit: courtesy of MSA.

School with 96% of students identified as minorities risks closure in Philadelphia

Memphis Street Academy serves more than 550 students in the Port Richmond neighborhood.

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Although having an academic growth that exceeds the national average; in 2017, Memphis Street Academy (MSA) received a non renewal recommendation from the School District of Philadelphia. Ashley Redfearn — CEO of American Paradigm School (APS), an education non-profit organization that supports the management of four different charter schools in Philadelphia, including MSA — said the recommendation happen because of the school’s academic achievement scores on the Pennsylvania System School Assessment (PSSA). 

As a Renaissance school, a School District’s initiative to transform neighborhood schools with long-term academic and climate challenges; MSA outperformed other schools in other metrics, but at that time the district only looked at achievement scores, Redfearn stated. With no other option besides closing the school, MSA negotiated a surrender clause, signed in 2018.  What no one could have predicted then, pre-pandemic, was to what they were agreeing to in a post-pandemic learning environment. 

Catching MSA by surprise, the School District recently voted to invoke its surrender clause. During a board meeting in June, it was decided that as of June 2023, the school will be forced to shut down. Because of its work with mostly students who identify themselves as Hispanic, Black, or Multi-racial; MSA has filed a Civil Rights complaint in federal court. In the meantime, it will remain open for the 2022-2023 school year.

“Our families and staff have been quite devastated by the suddenness and the lack of information of what would happen with the students if the school closes,” Redfearn said. 

Nicauris Estevez is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and the mother of a 13-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. As her son is an eighth grader at MSA, she worries about how the changes are going to impact her family. As they live near the school, if it closes, her son will have to navigate through the public transportation system without completely understanding English. 

Bringing attention to the impacts the closing will have on the neighborhood, she mentioned how the school surroundings are dirty and polluted with trash during the summer months, as there are no people occupying the school. The city keeps the neighborhood cleaner while school is in session and the area seems safer, Estevez said. 

According to Redfearn, MSA was expecting to be renewed by the School District. It was surprising due to the lack of PSSA shared data during the pandemic years. Redfearn highlighted how those years were difficult for the students, who had a lot more responsibilities at home than they should. Most of them were caring for other siblings and helping family members' concerns and anxieties, while also adjusting to not having counselors and peers near them.  

Although not performing as expected on the tests, the school was getting positive feedback about fiscal management, organizational compliance, academic growth scores and the community services it was providing during the pandemic; making the decision of invoking the surrender clause even more surprising. 

“There hadn’t been any indication that it wasn’t going to be invoked,” Redfearn said. “A lot of things in the past few years have indicated there would be some understanding of the fact that there was no data available from standardized tests for a couple of years."

Adding to the good education for the children, the school also thinks of ways it can help the community. By developing a free English learning program for parents who don't speak the language, MSA ended up building an even stronger trust based relationship with staff, students and families.  

“Not just anyone can come and do it, it takes time to build these kinds of connections,” Redfearn said. 

Having a special connection with the school, for four months Estevez, her husband and her son participated in the language program — which helped them adapt to the new country. MSA has been their support system since the family first arrived in the United States, without knowing the language.  

She also highlighted the amazing Spanish-speaking community in the school, which is always ready to help each other. 

“The closure is going to affect us as a community,” Estevez added. “This school is one of the best because they truly care about the lives of students and parents.”

Redfearn advises parents and community members who are concerned about the situation to write to local Council members and officials, the School District and board; sign and share their petition and follow APS on social media for more information and updates. It is good to spread the word about the positive influence the school has on the community. 

“Do it if it affects your neighborhood or your life as a parent,” she said. “The more people they hear positive experiences from MSA, the more support we will get.”


 

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