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.”