Instead of English class being a period of repetitive spelling words, a vague grammar overview and endless reading assignments, one teacher is infusing art and technology into his lesson plans.
In his third year of teaching English at the Philadelphia Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA), Peter Syoum’s classes are interactive for students, but also demand analysis and critical thinking of the literature they read.
Throughout the school year, Syoum will refer to paintings, bring in music and even sometimes have students act in class.
“Since they’re artists, I know that they appreciate the fact that we are doing more than just sitting and reading. We’re getting up and doing as much as we can. We’re always using art to the highest point to bring out the message in different literature,” said Syoum.
Whether students are in English 1, English 2 or in his playwriting classes, Syoum is known for using multimedia technology while teaching. There is a class website and blog. He uses video clips, interactive atlases, virtual field trips and Google Docs online. Classes also utilize Google Lit Trips — which uses Google Earth to show the journeys of literary characters. Google Lit Trip files are free downloads and students can also see the geographic locations of where stories were created.
“I found that technology is helping me a lot. It helps on all levels. … It’s not necessarily a replacement for anything, but it’s a facilitator.”
Tenth-grade film major, Dana Jolly, says writing can be a challenge, but Syoum is available to provide her with assistance.
“Writing is difficult. If I ask Mr. Syoum a question, he’ll answer it and help me out,” said Jolly.
“Students can write their papers, share their papers, edit their papers with anyone. They can talk to me at any point of day and night through e-mail or through comments on the class site or through Google Ddocs. So they are always supported,” said Syoum.
Parents are also involved with the class through e-mail chains. They can e-mail Syoum with any questions or concerns that they have, and he responds with instant feedback from his smartphone. This allows for quick communications between teacher and parents about grades and homework assignments.
“Parents used to be confused about what the child’s grade is; they don’t have to be anymore because we have online grades or I e-mail grades and they don’t have to depend on kids to bring grades back.”
Syoum says the most rewarding experience about teaching English at CAPA is that students have a passion for the arts.
“Definitely, the kids and their ability to see art and its importance in everything we do. Not only in the fact that they take art majors, but when they come to my class, they can see the importance of the art, they can see theme, they can see deeper than just the surface level of what we’re reading.”
Just as the first marking period comes to a close, and students begin to write drafts for a major writing assignment, Syoum stresses, “Perfection will come after you edit.”
“You can’t just write something down once and expect it to be perfect. What I found is a lot of young students don’t realize that it takes a while to get good at anything. That’s why it works best when I deal with the artists here because they understand in the art world that you can’t wake up one day and you’re Jennifer Hudson. You have to work at it, and the same goes for writing.”
Want to know more about what CAPA students are learning in English? Check out what Syoum is teaching, reading lists, useful links, class photos and other helpful forms and documents at http://sites.google.com/site/capaenglish2/.
Six years ago, there was only one high school for Kensington. Due to a large student population, Kensington divided into four campuses — Kensington Creative and Performing Arts, Business and Finance, Urban Education and Culinary Arts.
At Kensington Culinary Arts (KCA), some students aren’t cooking, but some are measuring up to new standards. Now, more health and science related classes are offered to students.
“We have developed different programs to reflect the health sciences, which we’re very proud of,” Principal James Williams said.
Now, students can chose between the dental program and health related technologies — which includes studies of anatomy, physiology and epidemiology.
“It’s an opportunity we never got before. It’s not in most schools and we get this, what other people never did,” ninth-grade dental program student Christine Bowser said. “All the teachers here are nice and they’re firm with us, but they teach us as well so, we respect them for that.”
Ninth-grader She’lae Dollard-Dukes said the new programs offer her a motivating atmosphere in which to learn.
“It separates us from the foolishness and people that just don’t care. It brings positive energy and it helps,” Dollard-Dukes said. “This school gives you more opportunity, and it gives us more stuff to do.”
Two anatomical correct medical manikins laid on two separate gurneys in the health related technologies classroom. Covered with bed sheets, the manikins are used during instructional periods.
Michael Rothstein has worked as a nurse for over 20 years and has taught health related technologies classes for a decade. Rothstein said he likes the drive of KCA students.
“[There’s] a lot more motivation here,” Rothstein said.
For an upcoming epidemiology class, students will learn about food borne illnesses. Rothstein has four teacher volunteers — acting as patients — read scripts and students have to interview them to determine which illness was present in the patients.
These new classes have led to the school’s proposed name change, Kensington Health Sciences Academy. According to school administration, the name change will be implemented for the next academic year.
“With the focus of changing the name of the school and increasing the relationships that we share with our community partners to provide more of a language that you’ll here with our upperclassmen, the word we constantly use is options. We want our kids to have options in terms of what they can do and whatever they opt to do we want them ready for that experience,” Williams said.
In his fourth year, Williams called KCA students “the difference makers.” He said the relationships with students make KCA special.
“We’re a smaller school which is a great benefit. We know every kid in the school. We know their families. There’s a certain rapport we have that is apart of the culture of the school that allows us to raise the academic bar,” Williams said.
“The thing that makes our school unique is the fact that just about everyone here has bought into our vision of how a school should be. We feel we have a mission as opposed to jobs. We’re going to bring about a good education for these kids and to enhance their future,” Dean of Students Ed Green said. “I think my job is to change lives.”
In a pre-calculus math class, seniors Quram King and Flor Melendez reviewed their homework. Both students had high PSSAs scores and took AP government and AP English courses.
“The AP classes really prepare you for college. In terms of enrolling, they really help you with every single step and the counselors are good and help you apply,” King said.
He is interested in majoring in music production and theater in college.
“Mr. Williams is always trying. They really want to give you a challenge and right now, there’s a push,” Melendez said.
She has been accepted into Penn State Berks.
During a health class, students discussed factors of the obesity issue among Americans and how to combat this problem with proper nutrition. Health and physical education teacher, Brian Zufolo had students watch the 2004 Morgan Spurlock documentary, “Super Size Me.”
“There are some things that catch their attention. In nutrition, we talk about things like fast food or things kind of related to them and their pretty interested in it,” Zufolo said.
In his fourth year, Zufolo said he likes teaching health and physical education because it is practical and relatable to students.
“I enjoy teaching my content. I feel that this is something that they can all relate to. This is information that they need everyday. These things they need for life. This is basic living skills. So I feel like I have an important job,” Zufolo said.
Joseph Pennell Elementary School is in a period of transition as it has ushered in a new principal and mindset to help turn its fortunes around.
Jason Harris was recruited by to become the turnaround principal for the K–6 school. He brought with him enthusiasm, energy and encouragement for the staff and students.
“One month in, it’s been rewarding but challenging,” Harris said. “This is a school that requires a lot of structure and it really requires high expectations. So, my main goal here was to first access what do children believe about themselves and what do the teachers believe about the children.”
Harris shared what the chatter has been at Pennell.
“I can tell now that I’ve been receiving a lot of positive feedback from our greatest stakeholders which are our students and then certainly a lot of great feedback from our parents,” he said. “You know, with any kind of change, people have to adjust. One of the first things I said when I first came here is that it will not be business as usual; things must change and the students have to achieve.”
Trina Pemberton is a sixth-grade teacher at Pennell. She has taught there for six years and has noticed the difference in the atmosphere.
“It’s been overall positive. I’ve seen a big change this year, which is good considering how it was before. I’ve always liked Pennell. I think it’s a good school with a lot of potential,” she said.
In particular, she has noticed disciple, vision and higher expectations for the students.
“My experience is that the higher you raise your expectations, the better the kids will do. They will reach it,” she said. “They like it when you expect great things out of them and they really try to do it. They try to reach those goals.”
Debra Morrissey is a fifth-grade teacher and has been an educator for 22 years. She is in her fourth year as a teacher in the Philadelphia School District and shared what kept her in the classroom for all these years.
“It’s the opportunity to watch children shine and develop and to become their best selves. It gives you a great deal of satisfaction to know that you’re a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem,” she said. “It’s a part of who I am and no matter what the challenges are, you always have to remember why you’re here and that’s for the kids.”
She shared what she thought about the dynamic Harris brought to the school.
“Kids are definitely his priorities period,” she said. “He wanted to know about the kids. He doesn’t want you to come and say you have a problem. It’s more on how does it effect children.”
Andrew Walker, new to Pennell as a sixth-grade teacher, joined the consensus that Pennell is a school where everyone’s priority is the students.
“So far, so good. I really enjoy the staff. I like working with everyone. Everyone seems very committed to the students and they seem committed to each other. The students generally care about one another as well,” he said.
Walker also chimed in on Harris.
“He’s wonderful. You can see that he really has a passion for teaching. He really generally cares about the family and the community in here,” he said.
Jennifer Jones serves as Pennell’s school improvement support liaison. She spoke about how the student’s have responded well to the change in administration and faculty support.
“As far as the kids are concerned, they come to me with whatever their problem is; if somebody is bullying them. If they feel they don’t have any friends, whatever I can do to make them feel comfortable in school and make them want to come to school,” she said.
Jones also gave high marks to Harris for making her job easier.
“If you need something, he’s there for you,” she said.
“He’s not the type of principal that likes to sit around in his office because every time you look up, you see him.”
For Carmen Perez and her class of Kindergarteners, Harris has impressed the importance of college. He said it was never too soon to start preparing them.
“One of the goals is to expose them to what a college experience might look like,” Harris said. “Just engaging the children in a different level of thinking is the goal.”
Even though the smallest at Pennell may not quite be able to grasp college applications just yet, their teacher finds joy when they are able to point out shapes and recite the alphabet.
“I love kindergarten,” Perez said. “I particularly like kindergarten because it’s the beginning and I get to see them when they come in and see their progress. So being here eight years, I’ve actually seen the first class I had actually graduate because I really watched them grow throughout the years.”
Perez, who has been at Pennell for eight years, continued on why she has remained at the school and guiding the youngest students.
“I also like kindergarten because they’re just little people. They’re really funny. They’re curious and they keep me going,” she said. “They don’t know everything but they’re willing to learn.”
Harris backed that sentiment by calling upon parents to help out in the process.
“Parents are our children’s fist teacher and we can’t stress that enough. If a parent is not involved a child will not excel. After they leave us after six hours of the day, they need to see constant models of good behavior, good habits at home. They need to see mom and dad reading themselves,” he said. “Parents have a huge role in it. We can’t do it by ourselves.”
Walter G. Smith Elementary School has had to work around the minefield of budget cuts that has plagued the Philadelphia School District. The school has supplemented those lost dollars by being more creative and emphasizing the programs that they do have.
One of those programs is C.A.T.C.H., Community Acting Together Can Help Incorporated. It has been at Smith for the past 21 years and helps with students who have behavioral difficulties. The kids engage in one-on-one therapy or group sessions to help resolve their issues.
“I’ve seen kids grow in the sense that they’ve been able to maintain their behaviors within their classroom with the support of the program,” Joyce Span, the CATCH lead said.
New to the school this year has been the inclusion of City Year, an AmeriCorps program. Tutors and mentors have entered the classrooms to help provide extra support to the students and teachers.
“It’s been great. It’s been great to be able to have an impact on the children from my own community and it’s been great trying to push them to get more out of themselves,” Sean Hill, a City Year helper, said.
He is a regular fixture at the school four days a week as is Katie Breiter.
“So far, so good. There are some really amazing students at Smith. They’ve been great to work with and I’ve had a really wonderful time,” Breiter said. “It’s enjoyable more so than overwhelming.”
The arts are also being highlighted. RAS Mikey Courtney, who has been working with the Philadelphia School District for the past 10 years, came to Smith to persuade some of the students to get involved in his Arts initiative that takes place after school.
“We’re really working towards art integration, meaning showing not only the community but the students and the parents and the teachers how the arts are an integral part of the students development and ultimately, that’s what we try and share with the students,” he said.
Courtney continued, “It seems like art is the thing that people are willing to just let go of and focus more on other aspects of education as opposed to the arts but ultimately the arts are a part of our cognitive development; a part of how we will ultimately express ourselves as creative adults,” he said. “If we don’t have the arts as a part of our foundation then somehow generally we’ll lack that ability to be more expressive when that opportunity comes. It’s not just about learning how to read , write academically but also knowing how to apply this information.”
A constant as always, is the faculty. Principal Rachel Marianno has made it a priority to keep the students encouraged.
“What’s interesting is that kindergarteners and pre-K students, they are so enthusiastic about learning whatever you want, they’re willing to do and we’ve got to continue to nurture that and it’s sad that by the time that child gets to fourth-grade, that enthusiasm has dwindled,” she said. “Unfortunately, we being the ones that educate, sometimes play a major roll in that and I want to get rid of that. I want to eradicate that so that that same enthusiasm is carried all the way through.”
She explained some of the factors that led to an enthusiasm gap.
“A lack of hope. Children in kindergarten don’t full realize all the negativity they’re surrounded by and I think because they don’t fully realize that, they overcome with their enthusiasm some of the negative attitudes that we as adults, educators, put upon them. So, as the children learn more about the negative things that might be surrounding the community in which they live, as they become more aware of it then they come in a little less hopeful. As they move forward, those problems are magnified more in the classroom,” Marianno said. “It’s about believing that despite the difficulties that come with an urban environment, children can still learn and It doesn’t matter how old they are. Or how long they’ve been exposed to that. We still have a right to teach them and to believe that they can learn and excel.”
Carolyn Morgan, dean of students, has worked with Marianno previously at a different school. She found her to be just the right fit for an evolving Smith, which is making the best of what it has.
“She’s energetic. She’s dynamic .She’ll go over and above to provide the children with a safe environment, sound educational practice and a lot of outside activities,” Morgan said.
As an educator with more than 29 years of experience, Morgan was also prepared to do her part.
“If I can reach one person, one child, and turn them around then I feel as though that my job has been done. Do I want to do more? Yes, but I have to have one that I have made an influence on and I know that it takes a lot of hard work and you have to have a tough skin when you work with children because often they say things that they really do not mean,” Morgan said.
She also shared how teachers could get through to some of the students. “I think what happens is that when you look at your class, you look at your class as a whole, but in front of you, there are 20 individual children sitting in front of you,” Morgan said.
“Twenty to 30 individual children and you just have to know that one thing about them to make them feel as though that they want to be here to learn.”
Tips for Middle School Students
A new school year has started and for many students, it marks the threshold to a new beginning. For eighth-graders, it is their last year of transition before they enter the first year of high school and start seriously considering college.
There are many useful tips that eighth-graders can take advantage of while in the classroom this year to ensure successful educational futures.
- -One of the most important things to do in this crucial year is to be serious about what goes on in the classroom. The classes and homework will become harder as introductory algebra, geometry, basic geology and matters related to the U.S. Constitution and American history are added. There will be a lot of comprehensive reading involved and complex equations to be learned. However, it’s all in preparation for what is to come. High school, especially those that specialize in advanced placement courses, offer classes that help students become familiar with some of the studies that universities offer.
- -As the homework increases, since there will be more to learn, now is also a very important time to improve study habits. Each course will require some considerable amount of time spent on the assignments. That will require making schoolwork a priority and not watching as much T.V. or going on the Internet as much — cutting down on distractions. It will help to form study groups with classmates.
- -This final year of middle school will also help enhance writing skills. Students will have to write essays that describe, persuade, narrate, compare and contrast. They will also have to do rough drafts and outlines, which will help to organize their thoughts and structure them in the proper way.
- -Even though the Internet can be a distraction, it can also be utilized to start searching for information on prospective colleges, scholarships and financial aid opportunities. The World Wide Web can be an important tool in gathering information that is not in textbooks and in keeping up to date with developments at colleges of your choice.
- -Perhaps the most important tip is to not be afraid to participate in class discussions. If you do not know something, you should raise your hand and ask questions. The chance is very high that there are other kids who may need the same answers and a dialogue will only help everyone.
- -Many students do not seek help from their teachers and guidance counselors, and their grades suffer as a result. The foundation of your academic future depends on having good grades, and students need to do all they can to maintain the best possible scores.
At Julia Ward Howe School, class is taught from “bell to bell,” reading is emphasized and subject material is relatable. There are partnerships between the school, parents and community organizations and recognition of students and staff is frequent. Rigor, reading, relevance, relationship and recognition are the five core values that drive the school.
From kindergarten thru fifth grade, two classes per grade, there are approximately 293 students who the principal calls her “children.” In her fourth year at Howe, Principal Docquin Jessup says, “Everyone has a voice.”
“I have a beautiful bunch of students, and I have a dedicated staff that put forth the effort and make a difference. We work together as a team. I couldn’t ask for more,” Jessup said.
By acknowledging the accomplishments of her students and staff, Jessup has a long list of possible awards that are given out each month, week and day. Based on academic excellence, attitude and respect for peers and administration, staff will select students who meet these requirements.
Monthly, one female and one male student from each class are chosen as “Student of the Month.” Weekly, Howe’s teaching staff votes on the “Class of the Week.” Additionally, there are math and literacy terms known as “Words of the Week.” At the end of the week, the school’s student safeties go to classrooms and ask students to recite the word and its meaning. The first person to answer gets a prize. Gel pens, pencils and books are some prizes given out.
Fourth-grader, Zoreyeah Tolbert says she enjoys getting the book prizes.
“I read everyday, when I read stuff, I learn. I like reading stuff because it might have facts that I don’t know.” Tolbert said.
Daily, students can earn “Howe Pride Tickets.” These small tickets are given to students doing well academically and with their behavior.
Fourth-grader, Chyna Taylor said she knows what teachers look for in order to get a ticket.
“How you interact with students and how you respect adults,” Taylor said.
By 2:45 p.m., students will bring the tickets to the main office. Jessup will shake the “little yellow bucket,” choose four winners and announce their names over the loudspeaker.
“It’s something we’re doing every day, every week, every month just to celebrate and show that I’m acknowledging their efforts,” Jessup said.
As students itch to go to lunch, James Bieak teaches one of the fourth-grade classes decimals. Recently, Bieak’s class received the “Class of the Week” Award. Within his eight years at Howe, Bieak says students really understand the initiatives set in place at the school.
“I think it’s something to look forward to. Trying to set a positive environment rather than having students interrupt doing the wrong behavior. I think it helps [students] to check their behavior themselves and model behavior for the younger students,” Bieak said.
According to the 2010 Annual Student Survey conducted by the School District of Philadelphia, 82 percent of fifth-grade students says there is a “level of academic and personal trust between them and the teachers at their school.”
“We learn [a lot] of stuff and the teachers really help us and we get more education from them,” Tolbert said.
Every week, teachers are recognized for their efforts. Teachers who have the most perfect attendance in their classes will get a certificate. At the end of the month, the teacher with the highest attendance record will receive a $20 gift card to Office Depot to buy supplies for their class.
Encouragement is a continued theme seen in Mona Cohen’s autistic support class. As the class of five students read out loud, Devon Smith encourages his classmate when they successfully complete a passage.
“Good job, Terrell,” Smith said.
“We’re a family. We look out for each other. The children are kind. To see them making progress, to see them talking, to see them thieving is just amazing to me. We don’t sit still,” Cohen said.
“That’s one of the wonderful things about us because it’s just the kindness of each other and we support each other and help each other. It’s great. I love my job.”
This year the class is studying animals. Field trips including, the Philadelphia Zoo, a farm and PETCO, will educate students about animal habitats, feeding and care. In order to pay for transportation, each month, Cohen’s class has a fundraiser selling bake goods.
To engage students in technology, Cohen uses the Photo Booth program on her Mac computer — which simulates students riding a roller coaster or swimming with fishes as they take their reading tests. Additionally, Cohen uses an iPad and has downloaded various applications for students to use to help with their development of skills.
“Students who are really not engaged otherwise, the minute that iPad turns on, they are just laser focused,” Cohen said.
Students at Howe learn the value of dependability. Fourth- and fifth-grade students have the opportunity to be a school safety. Tymnir Hatch, Jeffrey Jordan, Sanaa Durham and Kayla Wright are a few safeties at Howe.
Fourth-grader, Kyla DeVaughn says she likes the responsibilities as a safety.
“Every Wednesday we get to clean out the library and make it better,” DeVaughn said.
Howe students also have the opportunity to get engaged with various community organizations that visit throughout the year.
Through the Einstein Medical Center under the sponsorship of the School District of Philadelphia, Howe is an active participant in the Eat Right Now program. Speakers educate students to make healthy food choices. Using the Eating the Alphabet program — which begins with the letter A through the letter Z, and children have a taste of a healthy food, learn information about the food, and do a craft.
CADEkids — changing attitudes, decisions, and environments for kids, also goes into classrooms to show videos and instruct students on making good decisions to avoid conflict, violence and drugs.
The Academy at Palumbo, a school of 646 students, improved its overall attendance rate to 97 percent in seven weeks to win the East Region of the national Get Schooled Foundation’s Fall 2011 Attendance Challenge.
The friendly competition engaged nearly 80,000 students from 73 high schools in 17 states, between Oct. 3 and Nov. 18, students through a variety of online, social media and in-school activities. Across all participating schools 1,000 additional students came to school during the course of the challenge.
In the Eastern region, the Academy at Palumbo, motivated by the idea of a national competition and the chance to rally their school around a common goal of improving attendance, worked hard to improve upon their attendance rate.
“We are so proud that our Academy students showed their commitment to their education and their future by showing up to school and participating in the Attendance Challenge,” said Adrienne Wallace-Chew, principal of the Academy at Palumbo.
Kiana Thompson, the Academy’s Roster Chairperson and the school’s Attendance Challenge’s coordinator, said, “As a school, we were trying to think of creative ways to increase school attendance, and the Get Schooled’s Attendance Challenge and Wake-up calls came at the perfect time to help us reach our goals.”
Attendance is the greatest predictor of graduation and a significant driver of student achievement. Research shows that missing just ten days a year can lead to academic problems. Students who miss 20 days a year (or about one month) have less than a one in five chance of graduating from high school.
Few districts report these chronic truancy numbers despite their correlation to low graduation rates.
“Hundreds of students came to school this fall who historically have not,” said Marie Groark, executive director of the Get Schooled Foundation. “Thanks to the hard work of the students and staff, the Academy’s improvement means the school is on the right path to improving its graduation rate.”
To celebrate the school’s achievements, Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom, hosted a red carpet experience for the students, with a “Mission: Impossible”-themed event at the school and preview screenings of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” at the UA Riverview theatre in Philadelphia for all students.
Get Schooled brought a mix of celebrity encouragement, interactive educational games, and plenty of opportunities to elevate the youth voice, resulting in an average of 2.8 percent attendance rate increase across all participating schools. Schools earned points in the challenge by improving their attendance, nominating teachers who inspire them to come to school, testing their knowledge in an on-line trivia bowl, and signing up for wake-up calls from their favorite celebrities such as Tyra Banks and Trey Songz. There were185 students who signed up for Wake-up Calls from celebrities.
During the Challenge, the Academy hosted a Halloween attendance-focused pep rally with more than 600 students and teachers to celebrate their high attendance rates and to showcase their school spirit.
Academy students also completed 1,050 Sporcle quizzes testing their knowledge about science, geography and hip-hop stars’ real names.
This month, Get Schooled launched another national challenge — this one focused on a key milestone related to students’ likelihood of success in college: completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Details are at www.getschooled.com
Get Schooled is a non-profit organization dedicated to using media, technology and popular culture to improve high school graduation rates and college success rates. Get Schooled connects with young Americans through its combination of on-air programming, online content, on-the ground events and school-based engagement initiatives. Together with hundreds of schools, educators, and students, and boosted by partners like Viacom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Get Schooled motivates and empowers students to make high school education a priority and college education a possibility. To learn more, go to www.getschooled.com or follow Get Schooled at www.facebook.com/getschooledfoundation or www.twitter.com/getschooled.
The term “neighborhood school” is sometimes used to suggest it is inferior. However, Anna H. Shaw Middle School personnel refuse to be defined that way.
Under the leadership of principal Kwand Lang, Shaw has done its best to heal its reputation. The school and Lang were even highlighted by MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. Lang was denoted a classroom innovator. He felt he brought a renewed sense of energy.
“Energy. I can tell you that, a lot of energy and a focus back to the basics [and] a focus on structure. I spend a lot of time on modeling and mentoring around how to reach the whole kid,” Lang said. “Our new motto over the last couple of years has been ‘The new Shaw where every kid counts.’”
Lang has bolstered this motto by keeping track of the students’ academic progress.
“We run data on every single kid in our building. Every kid, we identify according to PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) performance, academic performance, report cards and things like that,” he said. “You’re going to find this in a lot of neighborhood schools, but most of our kids were below grade level when I got here. You find in a lot of good schools, what they do is … try to find that bottom 10, 15 percent of students and they’re trying to find something to move them up. They spend a great deal and energy trying to boost up that 10 or 15 percent,” he said.
“My thought was, ‘Why can’t we do it for every kid below grade level?’”
This led to the concept of the Achievement Team, which is an individualized learning plan for each student.
“My expectation is, my teachers know they need to know their kids better than I do,” he said. “If there’s anything that makes us different, I think it’s our achievement team initiative. Everything about that is just teaching and learning, and that’s changing people’s mindset of Shaw.”
The staff members at Shaw are more than happy to do their parts in helping the school excel beyond expectations.
“As the assistant principal of Shaw Middle School, it’s been an exhilarating experience. Most of my career was in suburban schools. When I came over to the urban school, it was totally different from what I was used to,” said Bruce Benton, assistant principal.
“But it’s great. It’s something that I enjoy. I love coming to work every day because it’s always a different kind of challenge.”
Benton also spoke of what an honor it was when MSNBC decided to put Lang and Shaw in the national spotlight.
“That was a great honor, because it lets the world know what we’re actually doing in Philadelphia. There’s always horror stories coming out of the urban area, but this is sure example of success that can come out of a urban setting with limited resources,” he said.
“We are the best-kept secret in Southwest.”
Ashley McGrath, who teaches science at Shaw, is in her fourth year at the school.
“It’s been really good since we have so few kids in the building. We can really develop a really good relationship with all of them because we only have seventh and eighth grades. I really know all the kids. I know their history, I know what’s going on and I can really connect with them,” she said.
“Our kids have a lot of difficulty. They come in with a lot of achievement issues in the past, but they end up doing well. We really do a good job of using our data and seeing where they’re weak and where we need to make improvements and push them forward.”
David McFadden instructs seventh-grade math and shared his experiences from the past three years.
“Every year is different. I’m growing as a teacher. I’m learning from the kids as they learn from me,” he said. “I try to keep it more about the kids and less about them listening to me.”
Catherine Brownlee has taught at Shaw for 17 years and credited Lang with helping to turn the school’s morale around.
“He’s made a lot of differences,” Brownlee said. “He’s very proactive in making sure our children get what they need regardless of the situation.”
Brownlee was also delighted to see Shaw recognized by MSNBC.
“I’m glad to see that our children are being noticed on a national level,” she said. “The old Shaw is not what we subscribe to. Our kids are good kids. Our kids are learners. We can compete.”
Jere Tobias, the school counselor, encourages the students on a daily basis to think of their futures.
“I tell my students that you can get into any school that you’re interested in if you meet the requirements. It’s really that simple,” Tobias said. “Our students know that when they come here, their needs are going to be met. Academically, emotionally, socially and physically.”
Budget cuts may have decreased some programming initiatives and the number of students at Penn Treaty Middle School, but education continues to be the school’s focus.
Through various grants, classes are equipped with Promethean boards and laptop carts.
“Students get interactive lessons,” Principal Sam Howell said.
As classes are infused with technology, every student receives keyboard and guitar lessons in Bethany Cann’s music class.
“I think the best thing is when they’re all excited and doing it. Whatever it is — guitar, xylophone, keyboards — when they’re all excited and they all want to learn it,” Cann said.
For the first time, one class has an opportunity to get acquainted with the functions and sounds of the keyboard. Khadijah Robinson and Naseera Williams share a keyboard. As the girls giggle while learning the notes for the song “Every Breath You Take,” Robinson admits she has tried to play the violin and xylophone, but her interests are in other areas.
“I’m in the modeling class and I just like to cook,” she said.
In the special education class, Krishanna Jenkins, Miracle Morrison and Carmen Rosales discuss the various subjects that interest them. All views were different, but each student said she enjoyed learning.
“I love art and reading,” Rosales said. “I like art because you get to be creative. I get to express different ideas.”
During an eighth-grade math class, students learned to read food labels and understand serving sizes. Each month in Brooke Hoffman’s class, students are engaged in the “Read About Math” project. Through these assignments, students make connections between math and daily life. As David Dickerson calculates how many servings are in a box of Trix cereal, Hoffman walks around the classroom offering help to students.
A 2010 student survey conducted by the School District of Philadelphia found that 78 percent of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students agreed that there was at “least one teacher or adult who does extra to support them.”
Eighth-grader Kiara Camacho is active in both art and music. As a singer, drummer and guitarist, Camacho said she always had a passion for the guitar when watching her uncle play. She also said the teachers at Penn Treaty are always willing to help her develop skills in her areas of interest.
“Teachers are nice, they know how to explain things. If we need individual help we’ll stay after school. I like it,” Camacho said.
Eighth-grader Rahsaan Scovers said he enjoys reading and likes Penn Treaty because the teachers are preparing him for the high school he wants to attend next year.
“They don’t discriminate against other people. They take you in,” Scovers said.
In relation to the survey, more than half of the students reported being “academically engaged in their coursework.”
Meleah White, eighth-grader, says the coursework at Penn Treaty is preparing her academically for a high school curriculum.
“They talk to you a lot about it. They prepare you for it because in class they give us ninth-grade homework,” Meleah White said.
“We have such an awesome mix of kids, ethnically, culturally, religiously,” Howell said.
In his seventh year, Howell said his most memorable experience was when Penn Treaty made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2010.
“I love being here,” he said.
Other than being the school’s principal, Howell takes on many other responsibilities. When students or parents need to talk to him about various issues, he is available to offer assistance.
“When I’m in my chair, I’m a principal. At the table, I’m a counselor,” he said.
Smiles and hugs greeted her as she walked in the hallways. As a first-year principal Rosalind Tharpe accepted the embraces; she said she always felt welcomed at General George G. Meade School.
“It’s just a big family,” Tharpe said.
For her, the connection to Meade is even bigger and more personal because her husband was a previous student. From this sense of family, Tharpe said the staff contributes to the positive and professionalism of the school.
“It’s a staff that you can tell genuinely cares about the kids. Many of the teachers have been here for a while, so they understand the community and the culture. When I walked in there’s a feeling of dedication. The kids and the family and the teachers, everybody pitches in,” Tharpe said.
Another aspect of Meade that Tharpe highlighted was the music program.
“The music program here is phenomenal. We are in partnership with Musicopia. All grades are musicians. It’s not just a select group; it’s every class. It just shows that everybody responds to music. Everybody has talent to see,” Tharpe said.
Patrick Urban leads the music program.
“He has a gift and he has a way to make music meaningful in a language that kids get.”
Fourth-grader Jhyir Champion likes to make beats and said he could be himself in music class.
“My favorite thing would be learning new music and usually being myself when I play music,” Champion said.
Classmate Mal-lik McLean has similar sentiments.
“My favorite thing about music is that you get to express yourself and learn new music that you never knew. [Music class] teaches you how to perform and face your fears,” McLean said.
“You really practice hard. Once you practice hard, put all your dedication into it and if you believe that you can do, put your mind to it. Usually when I’m having trouble doing something with music, there’s a little song I make up called ‘Hardwork and Dedication,’” Champion said.
“The enrichment engages them in a different way. Learning is not just books. It’s not just math,” Tharpe said. “You can’t have school without music or gym because you’ll bore the children. It’s all about them.”
Students are preparing for the May 31st spring concert.
Sixth-grade and English teacher, Lori Odum, leads sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students in the Young Playwrights Club. Students have the opportunity to write plays and perform them during a workshop. On June 5, professional actors will meet Meade playwrights and act out their plays.
“It’s a great program. It gives the kids a chance to express themselves. Their voices are actually heard through writing plays. They write about all kinds of things from bullyings, things going on in their families, illnesses and pressures of what’s going on, and they do it through writing. It’s just the best thing I’ve seen with this age group,” Odum said.
There are other programs at Meade. Deborah Hanson leads the Robotics Club. There is a mentally gifted program where students complete research projects. Student council gives students a voice to express their interests for school improvements. Monthly, the council meets with Tharpe. Additionally, there are the Experience Corp. tutors, a group of senior citizens who help students who have learning difficulties.
For the upcoming school year, Tharpe wants to bridge more connections with community partners and build a parents’ resource center.