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September 1, 2014, 7:55 pm

At Shaw, focus is on every student

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.”