SchooledWhat does it really mean to get a good education? What is educational success? The third season of WHYY's Schooled podcast explores these questions and more through the stories of very different students fighting to escape poverty in Philadelphia.
What does it really mean to get a good education? What is educational success? The third season of WHYY's Schooled podcast explores these questions and more through the stories of very different students fighting to escape poverty in Philadelphia.
The high school class of 2020 is bound for the history books. They were born in the wake of 9-11. Entered kindergarten during the Great Recession. Had their senior years interrupted by a global pandemic. And have now graduated into an uncertain future amid mass COVID-19 deaths, record unemployment and civic upheaval in the streets. In this episode we're telling the stories of students coming of age in a moment where the world feels both 'on hold' and 'on fire.'
A portrait of summer at a recreation center in a Philadelphia neighborhood where the threat of violent crime is never far off. Starting on the last day of school, we meet students — many living in nearby public housing — who embrace the structure set by staffers at the Hank Gathers Rec Center. Schools in the neighborhood often struggle to keep students orderly and engaged. Why is the rec center so different? What educational role does it play in the lives of students? This slice-of-life story explores the impact Gathers has on students living amid daily reminders of violence and trauma.
KIPP Philadelphia started a middle school in 2003 that promised to change students' lives. It was one of the city's first "no excuses" charter schools, where administrators implemented a militaristic discipline system and promoted a laser focus on college for kids from low-income neighborhoods. They also regularly counseled students who didn't embrace their methods to leave the school. Now, 15 years later, we track down dozens of former students to ask: in the long run, did the school live up to its promise? How were lives affected? And how has the school's original vision of success evolved?
We continue following Joshua Martinez and his classmates as they fight to graduate. But a teacher at El Centro raises serious questions about the rigor of the school that leads to bigger questions: For students who are far behind grade level, how much should we really expect? Where's the line for who deserves a diploma?
Joshua Martinez grew up in poverty in a neighborhood where selling drugs is a way of life. At 16, he quit school, but soon feared he had put himself on a dead-end path. Seeking a better life, he enrolled in an alternative school specifically for high school dropouts. There, a debate arises among faculty at the school: For students who are far behind grade level, how much should we really expect? What's more important, building confidence and relationships, or academic mastery? Where's the line for who deserves a diploma? We explore these questions through intimate portraits of students, like Joshua, as they fight to graduate.
What does it really mean to get a good education? What is educational success? The third season of WHYY's Schooled podcast explores these questions and more through stories of different students fighting to escape poverty in Philadelphia. The four episode season will be released weekly starting on August 7. Listen to the season trailer above. 'Last Chance High,' parts 1 and 2 Joshua Martinez grew up in poverty in a neighborhood where selling drugs is a way of life. At 16, he quit school, but soon feared he had put himself on a dead-end path. Seeking a better life, he enrolled in an alternative school specifically for high school dropouts. There, a debate arises among faculty: for students who are far below grade level, how much should really be expected? What's more important, building confidence and relationships, or academic mastery? Where's the line for who deserves a diploma? We explore these questions through intimate portraits of students, like Joshua, as they fight to graduate.
Special update: The story Jovan Weaver didn't tell
More than a year after releasing the second season of Schooled, we learn that Jovan Weaver has been carrying a dark secret. In late 2017, Jovan killed a man in a hit-and-run and then allegedly attempted to burn his car to destroy the evidence. Charges were filed against him in April 2019. They became public in June and Jovan resigned as principal of Wister Elementary. In this special episode we unpack the details of the case and its larger implications. We hear from members of the victim's family and dig through our interviews with Jovan before and after the incident.
Special update: The story Jovan Weaver didn't tell
Jovan Weaver has a story to tell. It's August 2016, and two young children have just been hit by stray bullets during different gunfights in Philadelphia in less than a week. "About a week ago, there was a six-year-old girl shot. There was also a six-year-old boy shot," said Jovan. Jovan had just become the first-time principal of John Wister Elementary, a school serving a mostly poor student body in East Germantown — the neighborhood where the second shooting took place. This hammered home one of the big reasons he has dedicated his life to education. "The importance to instill sound values into our children, conflict resolution, things that this community is struggling with at this point," he said. This was about a week before Wister Elementary was set to re-open after the summer break. And Jovan stood in an empty classroom thinking of how he'd address his faculty as a principal for the first time. As he contemplated what to say, he couldn't help but think of those two children — how vulnerable they were, and how much of himself he saw reflected in not just them, but all the kids who would soon fill the school. "I am these students," he said. "And I need them to see me inside of every single student that walks through this door — that hope, that possibility, that option of success." Jovan's 34 and African American, and as he began to speak to the faculty, he paced the room nervously, with dozens of teachers and support staffers listening intently. Principal Jovan Weaver addressing Wister's new faculty for the first time in August 2016. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY) "I really thought hard and long about how I wanted to start this morning, and I was encouraged by a few people in this room to share a story about a young man that I know very well," he said. He talked about a young man who had endured trauma, neglect and abuse as a child growing up poor in Philadelphia during the crack-cocaine epidemic. The young man never met his father. And the young man's mother, Jovan explained, often went out partying. "The result of her partying led to her coming home one night with her girlfriends, and he vividly recalls his mother giving him a joint to smoke. He was five years old at the time," said Jovan. "So, she continued down this downward spiral of drug abuse, continued to party, and all he could really think of was getting away." The young man, of course, was Jovan Weaver himself. And the story of how he got away — went from potential casualty of the streets to principal of one of city's most needy and controversial elementary schools — is one he's often shied away from telling, one he's often repressed, one that's sometimes easier to deal with by putting in the third person. "I try often not to think about it," he said later in an interview. "But if I step outside of myself — and, you know, listen to myself — I will be like, 'Holy shit. You shouldn't be here.'" The story of Jovan Weaver and Wister Elementary can also be experienced as a radio documentary. The tale is told across the four-episode second season of our podcast "Schooled." It's based on more than two years of reporting about the students, the parents, the faculty, and the huge political fight that sprung from Wister Elementary. You can listen by using the play button above.
In his first public act as principal of Wister Elementary, Jovan Weaver did something a little unconventional. The school is in Philadelphia's East Germantown neighborhood, known for pockets of deep poverty and struggles with violence. And the first-year leader wanted to set a tone early that parents should think of the school as a homebase for the community. So, he threw a big party. On a hot August day in 2016, the schoolyard was hopping with parents, students and teachers. Music blared from DJ speakers. Big barrel grills cooked racks of meat over burning charcoal. And Jovan took it all in — looking out over a student body nearly entirely African American. "I see myself in every black boy that I see. I see myself in every black girl that I see," he said. Jovan's own two young children, Jace and Ariel, were there too. And his goal with this party, and the year in general, was to make Wister everything he'd want his own kids' school to be — and to get it to the point that he'd want to send them there as well. "I'm a parent. I walk into Jace's school and Ariel's school all the time and they're fully transparent, and there's a bunch of communication. That's the same thing that I want my families to experience," he said. Mastery hosted a community event in the Wister schoolyard in East Germantown before the school year began in August 2016. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY) Coming into this new school year, the expectations were immense. The idea was for a brand new team of teachers and leaders to make a dramatic difference in the lives of the students in this neighborhood, to increase their learning abilities in ways that would alter the course of their lives. William Jackson, parent of an incoming kindergartner, had bought into that promise, and so far was encouraged. "For this community, just having these kids out here, just around and having fun, was dangerous," Jackson said that day as his daughter ran circles around him. "To come back here and have the families and have such a great day. This is a statement." But getting to this point was no small matter. In fact, the entire process that led to this moment was part of one of the most contentious and controversial school policy debates that Philadelphia has ever seen, one that came to epitomize the confusion, the politics, and the fury that have long underlied the school choice debate — not just in Philadelphia, but across the country. The story of Jovan Weaver and Wister Elementary can also be experienced as a radio documentary. The tale is told across the four-episode second season of our podcast "Schooled." It's based on more than two years of reporting about the students, the parents, the faculty, and the huge political fight that sprung from Wister Elementary. You can listen using the play button above. This is part two.
Jovan Weaver could barely sleep before his first day of school as principal. "I was like a kid on Christmas Eve," he said, laughing. This was August 22, 2016 at Philadelphia's John Wister Elementary, and the building was brimming with energy. In bright morning sun, small children swarmed the entrance wearing uniforms of Mastery gray and blue, their cartoon bookbags tight on their shoulders. Teachers cheerily greeted the children and pointed them to their homerooms. Parents idled at the foot of the school doors, watching as their little ones turned into Wister's main hallway, disappearing from sight. Every first day of school can be like a rebirth, but this one was especially significant. The city had just endured a contentious and still controversial debate that led to Wister's conversion from traditional district school to a charter run by Mastery Charter Schools. Now, formally, the school would be known as Mastery Charter School at John Wister Elementary. And Jovan and a staff completely new to the school had worked frantically over the summer to get things ready for this moment. "Right now, it's game time. Everything was kind of leading up to today," he said. "And now the real work begins." Coming into the change, a lot of promises and expectations were set: higher test scores, safer school culture, and ultimately, a school that would help the mostly poor student body defy the odds. And many parents bought into this promise. Enrollment shot up by 150 students, with more of the families in the neighborhood opting for the school. The job looked to be getting harder, as statistics showed the student body becoming even poorer and more challenged by special-ed needs. "I can't be in 19 classrooms at one time," said Jovan "My teachers are on the frontline. They're bearing the brunt of everything, and I just got to make sure that they feel supported, and they're ready to rock for our kids." Graphic by Azavea. Mastery is the largest charter organization in Philadelphia. Its motto is: "Excellence. No excuses." Over the years the organization has become something of a lightning rod. Supporters praise it for creating better neighborhood schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Detractors criticize it for being overly rigid, and too focused on measurable data like standardized test scores. Jovan became Wister's principal as Mastery had self-consciously reevaluated its philosophy, and he adopted a different tagline: "Love and positivity." "I do think I represent a shift that Mastery is taking on as an organization, and it's all about, just, love, building relationships, understanding our kids. While at the same time having super high expectations for academics and not lowering our bar one bit," said Jovan. "But there's also a qualitative piece there. You can't always just be so data driven that you miss the human side of things. So I'm big on that. It's a balance." For Jovan, personally, finding the right balance was very important. He grew up poor in Philadelphia during the crack-cocaine epidemic, and had overcome a childhood of trauma and neglect in no small part because of caring educators who both supported him and demanded more from him. And now as an principal, he carries his past with him in everything he does, and based on his ability to relate to kids, especially troubled ones, he's has garnered a nickname: "the student whisperer." On the first day of school, I saw this side of Jovan in action. A student named Kassir had been disruptive and was bullying other students, and Jovan happened to be walking by when a teacher was talking to Kassir in the hall. "And the first thing I said to him is, 'I don't even know what happened. I have no idea what happened, but let's just sit down and figure out what happened,'" said Jovan. Jovan explained that Kassir was in "last year's mode." "So me just sitting there and saying that to him, 'Kassir, this is a new year. That was last year, this is the new you, and I need to see the best Kassir. That was not the best Kassir.' That resonated with him." After his conversation with Jovan, Kassir went from sulking angrily, sitting on the ground, frowning, to smiling and agreeing to rejoin his classmates. "It's a new day," said Jovan. The story of Jovan Weaver and Wister Elementary can also be experienced as a radio documentary. The tale is told across the four-episode second season of our podcast "Schooled." It's based on more than two years of reporting about the students, the parents, the faculty, and the huge political fight that sprung from Wister Elementary. You can listen by using the play button above. This is part three. A collage of some of the fifth-grade class at Wister Elementary in 2016-17. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)