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Exemplary Philly Charter School Should Stay Open

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Just take a look at the number of students from Eastern University Academy Charter School in Philadelphia who go on to graduate and attend college, and you can’t help but be impressed.

The school, which opened its doors in 2009, touts an early college focus, meaning that most of its students take college classes long before they officially enroll.  That strategy has worked.

In 2013, every enrolled student graduated and received a college acceptance. The same was true in 2014. Last year, the numbers slipped a bit, but were still strong. Of the 50 students who graduated that year, 47 were accepted to college—seven to historically Black colleges and universities; 12 to states schools; 22 to private institutions and 6 to community colleges.

“We promote a college culture,” says Omar Barlow, the  principal and chief executive officer of the school which educates about 300 students in grades 7 to 12. “By middle school, our students get the idea that that ‘I can really go to college.’”

Since 2012, students at Eastern have enrolled in more than 150 college courses, mostly at the Community College of Philadelphia or Eastern University.

As an open admissions school that services a mostly Black and Brown demographic—many of whom faced learning obstacles early on—these numbers would make any administrator overjoyed. This is particularly true when one considers that many of the students who entered Barlow’s school in the 7th grade were reading at third-, fourth- and fifth-grade levels.

Still, the Philadelphia School District’s Charter School office has recommended that Eastern—which provides a holistic, college-integrated learning community dedicated to the education of each students in the context of his/her unique interests—be shut down.

The office says that the school’s graduation rate has declined over the course of its charter, and that its high school students have not been performing well on state-wide exams. They argue that at the middle school level, Eastern students struggle academically.

“We pride ourselves on what we call the end game,” says Barlow, the visionary leader who has become a father-figure to his students. “We get students who haven’t done well. We are getting them from other schools. They come to us. But by the time they get to high school, then begin trending up.”

By his own account, Ordes Speaks was a troubled student who bounced around from school to school and whose GPA dipped so low that he didn’t think he could ever enroll in college. As a last resort, his father took him to Barlow and asked for help. At Eastern, where students commit themselves to not only learning, but to developing a passion project, Speaks spent his senior year writing a 50-page memoir.

By the time he was ready to graduate, Speaks had done an about-face, and his transformation, coupled with his remarkable story, impressed college admission officers He was admitted to Morehouse College, where he is currently a junior majoring in Economics.

Now, he wants to follow in Barlow’s steps by opening a school to educate other youngsters.

“Being at Morehouse, I’ve been able to find my passion in education,” says Speaks who like other alumni are distressed to hear that their beloved school may close its doors for good.  “If the school closes, it would take a big piece of my story away.”

Patience Nkrumah graduated from the charter school in 2013, and went on to enroll at Eastern University on a scholarship and earned a degree in nursing. She has just landed a job as a nurse with Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

“I took college courses the whole time I was in high school, so when I got to college, I didn’t have to take some classes,” says Nkrumah, who came to the U.S. from Ghana in 2011.

Concerned that her neighborhood high school in Philadelphia was not up to par, her mother insisted that she enroll in Eastern University Academy

“Because I was enrolled in early college classes, I was already prepared when I got to college,” says Nkrumah, who is upset that there are plans to shut the school down.  “Mr. Barlow was a mentor. His love for the school is almost infectious. He gives his all. He is not just a principal, but he is the father of the school.”

In recent weeks, students, alumni and community members have rallied school officials and legislators to keep the school open. A petition has been circulating and concerned individuals should contact Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones at curtis.jones.jr@phila.gov to express support.

“We are at the vanguard of how schools need to change to focus on holistic learning,” says Barlow, who points to numerous studies that indicate that our kids are drowning in testing. “We’ve been able to not only focus on college, but to get our students in alignment.”

Eastern, like most charter schools, were formed to provide families with an alternative. The idea is simple: students should not be penalized by their zip code.

And while I remain a staunch supporter of public schools, the data speaks for itself. Eastern Academy is changing the lives of its students.

Those who care about access and opportunity at our colleges and universities, should be concerned about the travesty that’s taking place at Eastern. And we should all do our part to ensure that the school remains open.

Jamal Watson is the executive editor of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. You can reach him at jwatson1@diverseeducation.com or follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson

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