The Stunning Story of Stetson:
Aspiring to a New Vision Through Staff Unity and Student Leadership
How do you take a state’s second most dangerous middle school and turn it around without having to suspend or expel a single student all year? How do you do that with the same principal that had been there when the school was violent?
“So I see him — his head split open, blood all over the place — and to me, that’s still my kid. That really hit me hard… these kids, good, bad or indifferent — they are our kids. I want to be able to keep them here and turn them around” — Renato Lajara
Over three miles south-west of Smedley Elementary is a tall brick building that fits right in with the surrounding factory buildings of the neighborhood of Kensington with one notable difference: along the sidewalk, the factory buildings sport the hurried look of illegal graffiti while the school sports murals. Inside this doesn’t change; there is a mural on almost every wall, even in the shadowy basement where Ray Rivera is busy sorting out a stack of boxes. Rivera is a busy man as the operations manager for the 700 student school serving grades 5 through 8. But amidst his duties, he is more than happy to discuss the dramatic change that has happened at John B. Stetson Middle School: ‘I walked through those doors in October 1991. I’ve broken up probably 300–400 fights. And I can tell you this change is for real.”
Down the hall is the cafeteria. During lunch the dean, Mr. Mercado, is discussing the importance of fire drills with the entire group of 150 middle-school students listening silently. Then, all of a sudden he says ‘go’, and every student is on their feet moving quickly to the edges of the room. All of the teachers are calmly but intently watching and within eleven seconds all of the students are in straight, silent lines around the perimeter of the cafeteria. Mercado announces his pleasure at both the time and the silence, and the students cheer. They then wait silently as they are led back to class, not by their teachers (who are nonetheless nearby), but by peer leaders who direct the line of students to start walking or to stop. Classes that are waiting have student leaders that sometimes motion non-verbally for a peer to stop whispering, sometimes gently turn their peer’s body to face the right way in line — every time without a negative response — but mostly the leaders just stand and watch because most students are silently facing forward without need of redirection.
This peer leadership happens every day, throughout the day during all transitions as well as sometimes in the classroom that students in most schools would either ignore or respond to with indignation. Both the fire drill practice and the peer leadership of lines are clearly part of the ordinary routine for students and teachers at Stetson, but it is nothing short of miraculous when you consider that Stetson was one of the most dangerous schools in the state of Pennsylvania for years. Says Rivera: “It’s hard to explain unless you see it. This isn’t a cover-up, it’s happening for real. It could happen in any school, yes it can. I’m telling you, it’s night and day, and it can happen anywhere”.
The story of Kensington shares a number of similar details with the story of Frankford, like that of the ‘El’, and it follows the same narrative arc, but is more extreme. The 1800’s and early 1900’s saw the rise of Kensington as a working-class hub for a diversity of manufacturing industries. Kensington became a ‘textile enclave’ catering to the booming textile industry that made Philadelphia “the greatest manufacturing city on earth”. But the loss of industry and jobs that began in the 1950s led to a drop in population of up to 30% by the 1970s, resulting in deteriorated housing, insufficient services and on-going poor economic conditions.
A significant part of the rise and fall of Kensington was a particular business: “One of the largest and most significant of Kensington’s factory complexes was the John B. Stetson Hat Manufactory”. In the 1860s, driven by wind and rain that exacerbated his on-going hacking cough and tuberculosis, and inspired by the water-resistant pelt of beavers, John Batterson Stetson created what we now know as the classic cowboy hat, the ‘Stetson’. Its 7-inch brim kept out the rain, and the felt exterior not only repelled water but also fleas that infested the common animal-skin caps that were universally used at the time. It was revered for keeping its shape after a staged event where it was shot through with 20 bullets. Stetson called it the ‘Boss of the Plains’ and sales took off. To maintain momentum, Stetson began and expanded his manufacturing operations in Philadelphia until he had the biggest hat factory in the world that employed nearly 4,000 people. The factory was a series of five and six-story buildings that covered 12 acres, and was a little over 2 miles south of the school that now bears his name. By 1906, when Stetson died, the business was making 2 million hats per year. By 1915, 5,400 employees were making 3.3 million hats for not only cowboys in the west but employees of the National Park Service and soldiers in World War I. But after the war, the market for the ‘Stetson’ declined. The business moved to Texas and the plant closed in 1971, following the course of many other factories in Philadelphia.
Deteriorating housing, insufficient services and poor economic conditions describe much of Kensington today, but the description would be incomplete without mentioning drugs and violence. Consider the story of the ‘Kensington Strangler’ from 2010:
“On a nightmarish street infested with heroin, rape, and violent crime, prostitutes keep showing up dead. Jeff Deeney visits the city’s notorious neighborhood and finds hell on earth.
“The rusting, blue steel frame of the El, the elevated portion of Philadelphia’s subway, looms over dilapidated Kensington Avenue like a giant centipede’s decaying exoskeleton. Known as “the stroll,” Kensington Avenue is the hub of Philly’s street prostitution scene, where young, drug-addicted women turn tricks for dope money — and where lately, a serial killer stalks them in the sickly orange glow of the streetlamps under the El.”
A Philadelphia Inquirer study found that the most violent area of the city was this section of Kensington with over 800 violent crimes per square mile per year. The median income is less than $20,000 per year. Located at B Street and Allegheny, John B. Stetson Middle School is within six blocks of four of the top ten drug corners in the city.
Given this context, it should be no surprise that in 2007 Stetson Middle School statistically hit rock bottom. It was ranked the most dangerous middle school in Pennsylvania and test scores for students in all grades were stunningly low: only 11% of 8th graders and 12% of 7th graders were reading on grade level. In 6th grade only 6% of were reading on grade level. And in 5th grade, only 1% of students could read on grade level.
Renato Lajara is a man that speaks with a lot of confidence, and well he should because he and his staff have pulled off what must be one of the most noteworthy and dynamic school turnarounds in the recent history of education reform. In a purple shirt behind a big, highly-organized desk, Lajara tells the extraordinary story of turning around John B. Stetson Middle School, a story infused with a deep belief in the importance of valuing students.
In 2008, he came to Stetson as principal. It was the beginning of a glimmer of hope for the school: “I grew up in this neighborhood — I’m a product of the inner city and public education. I was offered the job to come here to Stetson, and right away I knew this was the place for me, because it had the most challenges. I’ve always been like that, I’ve always loved challenges. I knew it was going to be hard work, I knew it was going to be a struggle, but I was willing to come in and do the job.”
Lajara made a number of efforts to change the school, but those efforts were limited: “We did make a lot of progress in the two years I was here, but in reality it wasn’t the progress that we needed.”
Eighth grader Ricky Soto was in 5th grade in 2007 and he saw the struggle for progress every year: “In 5th grade kids were fighting, hitting teachers and destroying furniture, fooling around and doing bad stuff. In 6th grade Mr. Lajara tried to make changes with new teachers with better learning, but there were still fights. In 7th grade there was more learning but still a lot of fights.”
By the end of the two years scores had risen to the range of 20–40%. But as Soto noted, the school still had a lot of fights: Stetson had remained on the State’s Persistently Dangerous Schools list along with only one other middle school because in the 2009–2010 school year the school had over 130 serious incidents. It was an improvement over the 180 serious incidents the year before, but it wasn’t enough for Lajara and it wasn’t enough for the School District of Philadelphia.
In early 2010, the school was placed in the District’s Renaissance Schools Initiative, bringing with it the possibility of sweeping changes to the school, including massive changes to personnel. “Last year we got the news that we were going to be a Renaissance school. To be honest, I wasn’t upset — others were. Even if I wasn’t going to be the principal, I knew this was the change Stetson needed — just a fresh start. You can’t change the name, but you can change the way you do things. If you do things the same, you’re always going to get the same results.”
Stetson was paired with Aspira Inc., an organization which invested in Latino youth through two charter schools, various youth and community development programs, but which until that point had not attempted to turn around a school. Fortunately for Lajara, Aspira wanted him to remain as principal knowing the progress that had been made. Lajara immediately got to work with his assistant principal on what to do with the opportunity to turnaround Stetson. “Being here these two years, we knew what the challenges were. It was a no-brainer, what we needed to make it through; to make Stetson a place where teachers are teaching and students are learning. We sat down and talked about our biggest problems — inexperienced teachers and really difficult students. Those teachers were not equipped to deal with those students.”
The plan was essentially two-fold: radically overhaul the staff and figure out how to support the most struggling students. Under the rules of the Renaissance Schools overhaul, a minimum of 50% of the teachers had to be relocated or dismissed. Lajara explained the struggle with inexperienced teachers at his school:
“A lot of them didn’t have any educational background — it was a struggle to try to get them to understand that what instruction was about, looking at data, classroom management, and really what it takes to reach an inner-city child in poverty. And really get them away from “I can save the world” to just teaching the kids. That’s what you saw when you talk to them — ‘Oh, I feel bad for this kid’, and I say, ‘it’s not about feeling bad… of course, building relationships comes with it, but your job is ultimately to teach them.’ “
60% of Stetson’s teachers were dismissed or reassigned, and new, more experienced teachers were hired, more than had left which allowed the student to teacher ratio to drop to what Larjara wanted: 18:1.
The other part of the problem was more difficult for Lajara to solve: what to do with the most difficult students and it was this part of the story that most moved Lajara during our interview. The process he saw for dealing with students that committed a serious offense — like assaulting a teacher — wasn’t working. There had been a process of writing up what had happened and then getting the student placed in an alternative school, but most students wouldn’t go because of having to leave early on the bus or because of the possibility of getting beat up at the new school. What happened to one of these students was particularly formative for Lajara:
“The biggest thing that hit me in my heart, was last year, when I kicked a kid out of here and sent him to an alternative school, I would see him every day standing outside, skipping school. One day he’s playing around, jumped off the back of a truck and got hit by a car. So I see him — his head split open, blood all over the place, and to me, that’s still my kid. That really hit me hard. These kids, good bad or indifferent — they are our kids. I want to be able to keep them here and turn them around.”
So Lajara made a plan to keep the problem students like they were his kids by keeping them in his building. He did it by utilizing the previously unused 4th floor and partnering with an experienced outside group:
“Aspira let us partner with Success Schools, which is a spin-off of an alternative school. Our 4th floor was vacant, so I thought we could have an academy. Let’s take the kids with pink slips, write ups, and suspensions, that we saw in the 2 years that were here, let’s see if we can start them in the “Aspira Success Academy”. They’ll get the same education/curriculum that the other students are getting, but with Success Schools, there’s support to deal with students that have those aggressive behavior problems.”
The effect was almost immediate: “The first days were easier than I thought they would be. Things were down pat in 7–10 days” said Ray Rivera. The students “saw the difference like with the uniforms — we enforced it this year. We have norms like lining up the kids rather than opening the door and saying ‘free will’. Here, everything is in line, no cursing or pushing… the entire culture is different.”
Ricky Soto agrees: “In eighth grade it’s been a great experience. It’s very strict. Students are learning more. It’s a big difference because of the success academy on the 4th floor and there are better, stricter teachers so kids are learning more because the environment itself is different.”
Soto’s experience shows up in the numbers. Benchmark tests that are predictive of the state test scores have increased, particularly in math where scores doubled in 5th grade, tripled in 7th grade and more than quadrupled in 6th and 8th grade, from the first test at the start of the year to the fourth which was taken just before the official state exams. And perhaps most significantly, serious incidents dropped from 130 in the 2009–2010 school year, to 3 this year.
On the third floor, everything’s silent. The neutral colors of the floor and walls tell of an age when practicality was more important than vitality in planning decor. At one end of the third floor hallway, students are finishing up a test in Ms. Sorensen’s room, getting ready to go to lunch, and Mr. Fannara’s class is walking out the door towards the back stairwell. Student leaders pause and monitor the line while Sorensen and Fannara have a quick conversation about how to help a sick student. Then students file out in perfect quietude, Sorensen’s eighth graders following Fannara’s class. Student leaders pause the line at the bottom of every other half-flight of stairs and then move on in a steady rhythm till they reach the bottom, then walk down the long, dark basement hallway to the cafeteria.
At the back of the cafeteria stands a line of ten students. They are waiting for everyone else in the room to get their lunch because these are students that received a ‘concern’ rating from the previous week. Teachers rotate daily management of these students during lunch which allows Dean Mercado to run the regular procedures for students getting their meal. It also ensures that students who are a ‘concern’ strive to do better next time. It illustrates one of the primary reasons for the school’s success according to staff: unity.
Teacher Alex McCoy sees the difference from last year when the consistency she and another teacher tried to create together was undermined:
“We tried to set the bar high, in both our classrooms. But, if it’s not set higher consistently with each teacher and each administrator, the kids know what they can get away with, and they get away with it. The difference this year is all the teachers being invested, but also being on the same page — we have a school-wide behavior system, there is common language, common expectations, there are things we say — ‘absolutely not, you can’t do this’ that carries from floor to floor, class to class… and that makes a huge difference.”
In an area like Kensington, consistency can go a long way: “A school can create a coherent environment so potent that for at least six hours a day it can override almost everything else in the lives of children”. Research on other middle schoolers in Philadelphia confirms this:
“[T]he cracks in these urban classroom floors were wide. Poverty, meager educational resources, crime, and all the attendant problems in the students’ neighborhoods conspired to fling open the gates to failure. There was no recourse for schools but to attempt to compensate for this societal lack of support from within. Some teachers in every one of the five schools [researched] created classrooms in which this support could be found. Students recognized and valued this; and then wondered why every classroom could not be that way.”
Ray Rivera sees this as one of the major problems for Stetson before the turnaround: “When you have divisions on the staff it creates trouble. You’re not doing what has to happen.” And he isn’t afraid to bring up a touchy subject as a reason why: Stetson is now a charter school and does not have unions.
“Unions were an obstacle to doing more because the union contract tells you that you can only walk the kids up to a certain distance. I had been unionized for 19 years. There were a lot of things I was told not to do by the union and I did them anyway: ‘Don’t pick up this box because a mover is supposed to do it’ and things like that. When you get the freedom to do what you want to, you can go the extra mile. Here you’re an employee and I might lift 30–40 boxes and teachers help me. It’s the same mentality, ‘Let’s get it done’. Starting at the top, the administrators got into the trenches lifting boxes. It starts with everyone on the same page.”
Lajara agrees that getting everyone on the same page starts at the top. Just like at Smedley, where Brian McLaughlin’s door being professionally and literally open led to buy-in from his teachers, Lajara knows that he must set the tone:
“A lot of times, administrators give up just like teachers. Its top down, everybody has to work together. Administrators can set expectations until they’re blue in the face, but if the whole team doesn’t rise up to those expectations, the chain is going to break, and the walls are going to break. If the teachers are all working together, and the administration doesn’t back it up, then it will break. And we’ve been fortunate here. We can put in place whatever systems we want here, like the academy. But throughout the rest of the school, if we don’t set those high expectations and monitor it and stick with it, and have teachers that don’t step up, that just sit around and read the newspaper, kids know that when they go to that teacher’s class it’s the fun session and they can do whatever they want and break books and run out of the class. That’s where it breaks.”
Fixing the problem doesn’t necessarily have to do with unions directly but with the attitude of the whole staff:
“People always want to bash charters and bash unions and all this. It has nothing to do with that. It’s about personnel, who you have and if they’re really about kids and about education. Then you don’t need a union, you don’t need to not have a union. It’s not about complaining ‘This is not in the contract so I’m not going to do it’ ‘Oh, am I going to get paid if I coach a kid?’ If you’re about children and growth it has nothing to do with compensation, it’s about doing your job. If you’re getting paid to have a career, then do it all out.”
In an assembly on the 4th floor, Mr. Wade, the team leader and other staff of the Success Academy share positive shout-outs and some concerns they have about how some students were handling the end of a recent test. Students on the 4th floor act no different than their peers on the other floors, led silently in lines by student leaders. There is no discernible difference between the students on the 4th floor and their peers on the other floors other than the fact that class sizes are even smaller and more staff is present.
“I never had this much structure in my life before” says Wilfredo Cruz. “Those first days were hard but you know this is to better yourself and get a better education. They are harsh, but it’s to make you better.”
Cruz and his classmate John Welsh are two of only fourteen ‘Executives’ that have reached the highest rank in Stetson’s student leadership ladder. As such, they are allowed to walk out of lines, relax in a separate lounge area, wear a special blazer and get a laptop for personal use. Cruz handles money for snacks at lunches while Welsh man’s the door to the separate room Success Academy students eat in. It’s easy to forget that they are in eighth grade; they provide a detailed tour of the fourth floor complete with calmly redirecting a laughing student in a class we visit while telling their stories.
“Last year we would have called it fun” says Cruz. “Students running around, we were never in class. We would leave out of school, we didn’t get much class time. Teachers weren’t as strong as this year. Now teachers teach even if you don’t want to know.”
Despite unending trouble last year, both Welsh and Cruz responded quickly to the intense structure, consistency and tough love at the Success Academy. Welsh sums up his story beautifully: “It’s a major turnaround. I got tired of misbehaving, my mom used to cry every day. Now my mom cries for good things”.
“Those two guys are really near and dear to my heart” says Lajara. “Those are the kids I was always after” last year. The effect of the Success Academy did not just turnaround the lives of Cruz and Welsh states Lajara: “It resonated throughout the whole building. We had kids before that would throw a full soda bottle at a teacher, or [scratch] graffiti inside the classroom, and be hall-walkers, and it was exhausting to deal with every day. I thought as a teacher, but I also thought as a leader: ‘What do I need to do so that students and staff feel safe, but that everyone is met at their level?’ ”
Bringing an experienced and proven corps of staff to create the Success Academy inside the building was the answer to the two sided problem of supporting troubled students as well as the teachers they cause trouble for:
“Difficult students can be with trained specialists who can be in their face all day every day, because my [regular] teachers are not going to have the power or energy to do that — they’ll get burned out. And in an underperforming school, when you look at the research, that’s what happens — teachers don’t last for more than 2 years, they get fed up and leave. So, removing that element, it’s a tremendous difference.”
Research supports Lajara’s move: results demonstrate that students from alternative education can succeed in assimilating into the demands of college life. School authorities that allow students to be removed from school must ensure a quality alternative education option exists to guarantee the right of every student to an education and flexibility in those situations is important for adequately meeting the diversity of students’ needs.
But the addition of the Success Academy doesn’t fully answer the question of how Stetson changed. Research makes it clear that both positive and negative reinforcement need to exist in a school. A major meta-analysis on classroom management of over 100 separate research reports by Robert Marzano found that “The research and theory strongly support a balanced approach that employs a variety of techniques”. Another meta-analysis involving over 5,000 students found a significantly higher effect on classroom disruptions when those disruptions are met with both negative consequences and positive reinforcement.
Lemov, in Teach Like a Champion explains: “People are motivated by the positive far more than the negative. Seeking success and happiness will spur stronger action than seeking to avoid punishment. Psychological studies repeatedly show that people are far more likely to be spurred to action by a vision of a positive outcome than they are to avoid a negative one.”
Stetson’s staff regularly exercises this approach of utilizing positive and negative reinforcement in assemblies according to Lajara:
“From Monday to Thursday, each grade has their own assembly, where it’s more intimate and they get to talk about each other. In the morning, after lunch, and then end of the day: 3 assemblies. The assembly in the morning, it’s more pumping kids up. At night they say, ‘go home safe,’ and at lunch they say, ‘listen we have two hours left of school, let’s make sure we have a great day.’ The kids that were misbehaving get exposed: you had a bad day, let’s turn it around. If you’re the one making trouble, you have to stand up and take ownership of what you did, and apologize to everyone that you hurt. Fridays are the whole-school assembly. I give them my pep-talk. I love Fridays. I can’t wait to wake up on Friday mornings and do my assembly.”
Assemblies make it clear to students both that staff members value them and will not tolerate any level of trouble-making. It’s part of the bigger picture of Stetson’s balance between negative and positive reinforcement. Nothing less could cause the most miraculous statistic for Stetson: they have had zero suspensions in their first year as a turnaround. There is strong negative reinforcement in that any student committing an offense severe enough for a suspension is moved to the Success Academy. And there is strong positive reinforcement through the opportunities of rising in the ranks of student leadership.
Where Mastery’s bold mission for preparing students for college allows Smedley to place the positive opportunity of higher education in front of students, Stetson’s extensive student leadership structure allows its students to have a positive opportunity even closer to their daily experience. Combined with an alternative school in the same building, the results of good or bad behavioral choices are placed clearly before Stetson’s students. It is a form of choice proximity: the consequences of actions are immediately tangible.
Research has found connections between levels of student participation and attitude toward school. This is true of all schools, including those in struggling urban areas:
Rutter and colleagues in 1979 did seminal research on effective urban schools in poor communities — that is, schools in which the rates of delinquency and dropping out actually declined the longer students were in them. Rutter found them to be schools in which students “were given a lot of responsibility. They participated very actively in all sorts of things that went on in the school; they were treated as responsible people and they reacted accordingly.
This aligns with common sense: “When one has no stake in the way things are… it takes no particular wisdom to suggest that one would rather be elsewhere.
But there is relatively little research on student leadership in particular, at least not lower than college level. Marzano’s classroom management meta-analysis failed to even mention student leadership once. No matter for Lajara — he knew the simple truth that giving students a well-defined and challenging opportunity to invest their natural desires to participate and lead would have a positive effect, though he may not have realized how positive.
Every Wednesday, Stetson’s teachers meet to discuss ratings for every student in their grade: students are rated at either ‘concern’, ‘neutral’ or ‘positive’. This is an opportunity for unified teacher feedback to students on behavior but it is also the entryway into becoming a student leader. After being rated positive for three weeks, a student can become a ‘Pledge’. They receive a binder that contains information on school norms and procedures that must be memorized because they will be tested on it by the principal or assistant principal. It also includes training on how to effectively lead peers such as escorting them to the bathroom or redirecting them nonverbally. Peers, peer leaders, teachers and the dean must sign the pledge binder to verify that the pledge student is following and implementing the training appropriately. Finally, the student can become an official student leader — or ‘Stallion’ — with the signature of the principal or assistant principal. For students, this can be an emotional moment: “Three girls came here one time, three seventh grade girls,” describes Lajara. “They all passed. I bent down to sign one of their pledge logs, and when I got back up, they had all started crying. Hysterical crying! They said, ‘We were just so nervous, we had to pass the test — but we’re so happy, now we’re Stallions!’ ”
Being a stallion isn’t even the highest level possible at Stetson: ‘Executive’ is, where the entire staff votes on a student after additional weeks of having to prove leadership. But the experience was proof for Lajara that the miracle was for real at Stetson: “When they walked out, I knew — wow, this is different. This whole thing just changed. Every kid that passes, when they leave, they are like, “Wow I’m a Stallion now!”
“The kids drive me” says Lajara with a smile. “I love these kids to death, I’m all about kids. I love them. That’s what moves me in the morning — kids. I’m in charge of 700 of them — I love them like they’re my own. When you’re a teacher, you have to love kids, and if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have a job. And for the two years I was here, I saw people that hated kids. Teachers that hated kids. You can’t move a staff forward if you don’t like kids.”
Alex McCoy is motivated the same way:
“It’s one of those things that’s top down and bottom up. We have a leader who’s pretty positive all the time about everything. That makes you positive. And the staff is generally positive. But I feel like we’re more positive because our kids are more positive. They come to school ready to come to school — knowing the expectations.
You come into the profession because you care about kids, especially in a school like this, and you want them to succeed. So when you see kids being successful, it makes you want to come to work.”
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