‘Still hope’ for Jones Middle School students

Students of John Paul Jones Middle School are getting an education makeover.

The school, more commonly known as Jones, at 2950 Memphis St., will now be known as the Memphis Street Academy Charter School at J.P. Jones, or simply the Memphis Street Academy. The change is the result of a takeover by American Paradigm Schools, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit education management organization.

So far in Northeast Philadelphia, American Paradigm has established First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School, at 4300 Tacony St. and Tacony Academy Charter School, at 1330 Rhawn St.

Now, the organization is turning its attention to Jones, which will open as the Memphis Street Academy in the fall.

Students, parents, and American Paradigm staff have said that while Jones has been a pillar of the community since 1923, the school had serious problems, and the overhaul is a welcome transformation.

Brandon Kilgore, 12, will be attending 7th grade at the Memphis Street Academy in the fall. In an interview July 19 at First Philadelphia Preparatory, he said that he is familiar with the serious problems at Jones, as he was bullied during class on more than one occasion.

“It was an unsafe place to be,” he said of the school. “It didn’t feel like a safe environment, it didn’t really feel like anybody cared about the school…as long as the kids were there, they [school staff] really didn’t care.”

Kilgore’s mother, Maria Sol Vega, said she tried to put a stop to the school bullying when her son finally told her about the incidents.

“I, too, was bullied when I was young, so I feel his pain,” Vega said. “But I did have a lot of problems [getting the situation resolved]. I was constantly having to go up to the school and confront the teachers.”

Both Vega and Kilgore said the overwhelming sense at Jones was that both students and staff alike simply didn’t care. Kilgore also said he would become bored in school, as Jones offered little to no creative projects, school trips, or opportunities for engagement.

When asked how people would respond when he said he attended Jones, Kilgore said the response was consistent.

“‘Why does he go there?’” he said people would ask. “I kind of didn’t want to tell them I went to Jones.”

Vega agreed.

“I would get that frowned face, that puzzled look,” she said. “It’s a neighborhood school that people know has a bad reputation.”

There is hope, though, that in the fall, all that will change.

Christine Borelli, new CEO of Memphis Academy, responded confidently to Vega’s asseesment of Jones.

“It had a bad reputation,” she said.

Borelli is ending her time as a principal of Webster Elementary School at 3400 Frankford Ave. She said some of her Webster students went on to Jones, so she’ll be seeing them again now at Memphis Street Academy.

She said the problems at Jones were clear, and pointed to extremely low test scores, low teacher attendance rates and high numbers of behavior incidents.

“The goal [of Memphis Street Academy] is first and foremost to make the school a safe haven,” she said. “We need our children to have a school in their community that they deserve. These students should be able to walk out of their front door to a neighborhood school and receive a quality education.”

She said it was upsetting that Kilgore believed students at Jones didn’t care about getting a good education, and called it a matter of perception.

“If he didn’t think his education was valued, we only have to hear that one time, and that’s enough for us to understand that there’s a serious need for reform,” she said.

So what’s in store for Memphis Street Academy?

Borelli said on July 31, American Paradigm removed the metal bars from windows and the chain-locked gates from the halls of the campus.

The barred windows and gates made the school “kind of feel like a jail,” Kilgore said.

The school will also be painted and renovated, and students will report to school in September — September 4 for 5th and 6th grade; September 6 for 7th and 8th grade — in the official Memphis Street Academy school uniform.

Borelli said the uniform is a point of pride that will be strictly upheld.

“It’s important for them to always be looking like they are proud to be in uniform,” she said, adding that as Memphis Street Academy does not bring in students by bus, many will be walking through the neighborhood or taking public transportation to school, so image is important.

Kilgore said he is excited about wearing the school uniform, and glad about the fact that there is a more climate-specific summertime uniform as well.

Borelli said the school will offer its 800 students 30 grade teachers, two art teachers, two music teachers, one sign language teacher, one physical education teacher, two autistic support teachers, and two emotional support teachers. Paradigm is currently in the process of hiring all-new staff.

The school already has over 20 confirmed programs for its students, including varsity and junior varsity sports as well as music and art programs.

“I’m very, very excited,” Kilgore said of the new academic and extracurricular activities. “I’m thinking about trying maybe all of them!”

Borelli said the school will also offer a mentor program, as well as a student-to-student “buddy system.” These programs, she said, create what Paradigm holds in high regard — a “caring school community.”

Vega said she was very impressed when she toured the other American Paradigm Schools campuses.

“These children were happy, wanted to come [to school] every day, and wanted to learn. What I saw in them is what I want to see in my child,” she said. “I know for a long time my son has wanted that, and I know for sure he’s going to be getting that.”

Kilgore said that he knows he will be proud to call himself a Memphis Street Academy student, and is excited for the changes to come.

Borelli said the staff is excited as well, and wants to be sure Memphis Street Academy represents a promising look to the future.

“The message to the community is, ‘Jones is no longer as it was,’” she said. “We are changing.”

Vega said that on July 19, Kilgore shared his enthusiasm about his education with her.

“Mom,” he said, “There is still hope for the kids at Memphis Street Academy.”

Learn more about Memphis Street Academy and other American Paradigm schools at www.ap-schools.org.

Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215–354–3113 or at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.