“Give us a chance.” That’s what a school admin told parent Luis Rodriguez just after his son’s high school became a public charter in 2011.
Alex Rodriguez was an underclassman at time. He was one several hundred students whose high school tenure saw the merger of Olney East and Olney West to form a single new charter: Olney Charter High School.
In asking for another shot, that staff member was speaking for many. The change in the school’s operation was part of The District’s Renaissance Schools Initiative, meant to assure access to good schools for more city neighborhoods. Luis Rodriguez listened, but remained skeptical. In his words, “The school was a madhouse.” An Olney graduate himself, he recalled his shock upon visiting the school during a regular school day in 2010. “They were disciplining students directly over the PA,” he said. “The school was filthy and out-of-control.”
His son Alex had thrived in his schools and community in a variety of ways beside academics. Highly social, he was known and loved by many and had come a long way on sheer attitude and willpower. But the then fifteen year-old had been diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum and faced learning challenges since an early age. Five years later, Alex is still enrolled at Olney Charter High School, and his father’s concern has given way to tremendous optimism.
Under ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania, the nonprofit and charter operator of Olney, Alex now finds himself in the school’s Low-Incidence student category: a designation given to students who attend normal schools but require Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) to succeed and graduate at their own paces. In his father’s words, “He’s been doing great, and I think it’s because of the personal attention he gets from staff.”
Luis has always been active and involved enough to notice shifts in the way the school operated at every level. Hallway demeanor evolved to a point where he felt comfortable sending Alex there for seven hours a day. He also expressed a new sense of transparency and cooperation between the administration and the families they serve. “After ASPIRA took over, I really felt like the doors were finally open and that parents could learn what was happening and become part of the effort,” he said.
Today, Alex remains engaged and successful in his senior-year classes at Olney. Just as positive are the ways he’s branched out into support, learning and volunteer programs through the school. Most mornings, he volunteers at St. Christopher’s before being shuttled to school by transportation staff from Olney and ASPIRA of PA. When the last bell rings, he often attends school programs and counseling as referred by Olney’s psychologists and special ed. support staff.
Like many charter success stories, the key lies largely in the maneuvering room the new charter status gave ASPIRA of PA to implement staffing, policy and curriculum changes based on the school’s specific needs. This included building the largest and most comprehensive special education program in the Philadelphia Public School System for kids like Alex Rodriguez.
Alex will graduate from Olney Charter High School this spring at the age of 21. For him, it won’t be easy leaving a school where everyone knows his name. For his father, it will be a lot easier knowing all that he’s leaving with.