Here’s What Happens When a School Listens to Its Community

Jun 3, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Jana Somma

Every parent in every community wants a great education for their kids, and that shouldn’t be too much to ask. But in Philadelphia far too many families are stuck without a good educational option. That’s why Mariana Bracetti Academy (MBA) Charter School was founded. For years we were serving our students well. But over and over again we heard from parents that, while MBA was a great option starting in middle school, there weren’t enough quality elementary schools. Please, they asked us, could we open an elementary school so that kids in the neighborhood could have an MBA education starting in kindergarten? I don’t think anybody would have faulted us if we had kept things the way they were. We were already one of the top public schools in the city, and the size of our waiting list made it clear that we were providing a safe, quality learning environment for our students. But at MBA we take the needs of the community seriously; [pullquote position="left"]if our families want something, we try to provide it.[/pullquote] That said, adding an elementary school was a daunting endeavor. Besides getting approval from the school district to change our configuration, we needed an entirely new curriculum, many new staff, and modifications to the school structure. But since it was important to our families, it was important to us. What kept us going was a simple truth: The longer we had the opportunity to teach our students, the better off they were. And so we sought and received approval for the change. Today we’re serving students from grades K-3 in addition to our original 6-12, and in two years we will be a full K-12 school.

Meeting the needs of the community

Adding an elementary school has only enhanced our community. One-hundred percent of our student body is economically disadvantaged; 98 percent are students of color. Many of them face difficult circumstances at home, so we try to create a safe, loving environment that sets them up for success. With kindergartners part of the same community as high school seniors, it feels even more like a family than it did before. We view a four-year college as the goal for our students, and we do whatever we can to support them. All of our students take the PSAT and 80 percent take the SAT, regardless of their financial circumstances. We also sponsor a dual enrollment program at the Community College of Philadelphia so eligible students can take college-level courses in high school. But while we work hard, we also have a lot of fun. Besides athletics and academic enrichment opportunities, we have an anime club, dance, a brass ensemble and many other extracurricular activities for our kids. After all, [pullquote position="right"]not all learning takes place in a traditional classroom.[/pullquote] And our approach is working. Nearly 80 percent of our students are accepted to college, and the class of 2015 earned $2.9 million in scholarships. This past year we were selected as a Peer Leader by the School District of Philadelphia in recognition of our outstanding performance on Philadelphia’s School Progress Report. It’s no wonder that we have 1,500 students on our waiting list. There are many ways for a school to measure its success—test scores, college acceptance rates, waiting lists and other metrics can help to show how a school is performing. But at MBA just as important to us is whether our families and the community are satisfied. And it’s fair to say they are. As Ansil Melendez, an MBA parent, puts it, “I love MBA because the teachers and the staff work hard to support both kids and parents.” We’re ecstatic to hear that, and can’t wait to continue to grow along with our families in the years ahead.

Jana Somma

Jana Somma is the principal of Mariana Bracetti Academy (MBA) Charter School in Philadelphia.

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