Philadelphia Students Find Refuge from Violent Schools in Online Learning

Published April 28, 2011

High levels of violence in the Philadelphia school district are pushing students and their parents into cyber-charters and other types of alternative schools, local educators said in the aftermath of an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

That investigation found 4,541 incidents of violence were reported in the district during the 2009-2010 school year. “That means on an average day 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or victims of other violent crimes,” the Inquirer noted in a seven-part, front-page series published in April.

The paper said those numbers probably underestimated the problem, a plague exacerbated by underreporting of incidents and compounded by inconsistent and ineffective efforts to crack down on the problem. Two-thirds of teachers surveyed by the Inquirer said violence was hindering educational efforts in the city’s public schools.

‘A Recurring Problem’

The results didn’t surprise Jack Stollsteimer, who served as a state-appointed “safe schools advocate” for the Philadelphia district between 2006 and 2009.

“That’s been the consistent findings every time somebody has taken a look at violence in Philadelphia schools,” Stollsteimer said. “It’s a recurring problem, one they never address.”

He added, “It’s the reason why in urban districts charter schools are so popular. [Parents] don’t know if the academics are any better. They just think they’re safer.”

‘An Academic Issue’
Sharon Williams, director of Agora Cyber Charter in Pennsylvania, said 20 percent of the 6,000 students who enroll in her school’s online classes are from Philadelphia.

“I do know anecdotally, from talking to parents, that safety is a reason I hear in a lot of our urban schools,” she said. “They’re looking for a safe place for their children to really learn. Kids are distracted by violence. It’s not just a safety issue but [also] an academic issue.”

Philadelphia school officials, however, rejected any blame for violence in the classrooms, saying violence was a “public health issue” that affects the entire city.

“Having been a teacher, having been a principal, I never had that happen in my classroom, and I sure didn’t have it happen in my school,” Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told the Inquirer, “because we were clear about what we would tolerate, what was acceptable and what wasn’t.”

‘Desperate for a Solution’

Stollsteimer said his own research indicated 70 percent of violent incidents went unpunished. “Seventy percent of the time, they tolerate the violence,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”

Ackerman is waiting for the results of a blue-ribbon panel on school violence, formed in the aftermath of widely publicized incidents against Asian students in the 2009-10 school year. Following the Inquirer’s series, Mayor Michael Nutter ordered Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey to develop a new safe schools plan.

Until their efforts come to fruition, however, students may continue to flock to online alternative schools like Agora.

“They’re desperate for a solution—both the bullies and the bullied,” Williams said. “This is what they need: Not putting them all in an alternative school where they all kill each other.”

Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.