Every composer has likely had moments when even the best ideas are not producing the desired results and opts to rip up the pages to start over again. Yet the musical creator may retain some phrases or sections of the original composition while coming up with an entire new and improved masterful work. That’s kind of what happened at the David Birney School in Logan.
Located at 900 W. Lindley Ave. in the neighborhood surrounded by sinking homes and diminishing hope, the K-8 Birney School is giving Logan residents hope. The public school became a “Turnaround School” a year ago. This mean it received a complete overhaul of staff to breath new life into the solid multi-story brick building.
Teacher Vania Gulston is one of the newest members to the staff. She has been teaching seventh-grade at Birney since February. The Los Angeles native who has taught in New York City came to Philadelphia to get her master’s degree from Temple University and stayed. She brings with her five years of teaching experience.
“I’ve been greatly impressed with the way the school is progressing,” said Gulston just before the younger students displayed their talents on the April 25 Paragon Night. “The first thing I noticed when I came here was how the children are reading a lot. That’s what makes the curriculum so strong in social studies, English and history.”
Yet Paragon Night shows off well what elementary and middle school aged students are learning at Birney this year. The rear ground level cafeteria has a standing room only crowd of parents and faculty. The children fill the area in front of the stage as they watch their counterparts perform class by class. The energy is so high that there is a kinetic synergy in the room.
Gulston said that Paragon Night is just one of many showcases for the children’s talent. She was quick to single out dance teacher John Graves for coordinating larger programs and working with every student in the K-8 school, including the middle schoolers she teachers.
As Gulston is talking to “The Learning Key” Graves is on stage putting on the Michael Jackson chartmaker “Wanna Be Starting Something”. The students are lined up waiting to take steps in unison as soon as the music starts. “It’s universal. Kids love this and they try to over do it, and I want them to do well,” Graves said.
Enjoying the performance was guidance counselor, Danielle Burnett, who joined the staff last September, and special education teacher Anthony Reed, who came aboard last August. A reserved Burnett said that all the preparation for the Paragon Night made her exhausted. She said that it is worth it because it’s all about the children.
“This is truly a child-centered school,” said Reed. “We have performing arts, a librarian, gym, music classes, and a strong academic educational curriculum. We understand that you have to give students a wide range of experiences. When you’re in a (turnaround) school you know that there are things you have to correct and together we are working well together doing just that.”
Paragon Night gives the students’ family a sampling of the positive energy in the school’s classrooms, according to Reed. “This really showcases what we are doing here. The presence of so many parents is great because we have a strong Home and School Association. I wished more parents would be directly involved but something like this brings them out,” Reed said.
The stage performers are taking the audience on a trek to the Indonesian islands to Bali. They show bits of the dance, music and art of that and other cultures. They then created a scene where they asked the question, “Why do people create art?” With an omniscient voice in the background the child actors answered the question in pantomime. The audience bursts into spontaneous applause throughout.
The stage displays a colorful mural with palm trees. The children know how to locate various parts of the world from the map. They then acted out a scene that integrated animals, family members, percussion musical instruments, and interpretive dance movements.
“I think this is one of the better schools there are,” said Brooke McCullough, whose 6-year old kindergarten daughter, Alyssa, danced on stage during Paragon Night. “I think this Paragon Night shows how the kids are learning a lot of staff. My daughter is learning things in kindergarten most don’t know.”
McCullough readily admitted that initially when she was going to send her daughter to school she had her sights set on her going to the Incarnation Catholic School. When that Archdiocese of Philadelphia School closed she did not know where she would send Alyssa. It was after learning about the “turnaround” school and meeting the staff that she felt comfortable sending her daughter.
“This school is really right across the street. So, it’s always convenient going to school in the neighborhood. Originally I didn’t want her going to public school. Now I am happy with her education and I am all for schools like this,” McCullough said.
Parents, like McCullough, said they felt comfortable letting their child attend Birney from K to 8. Many parents of middle schoolers as well as those who had children in a multiple of grades singled out the quality of the kindergarten teachers. They include Saadia Muhaimir, Melissa Pavonarius and Danielle Scruse.
“There is so much positive energy here even as we are all new hires,” said Muhaimir. “This is a very kinetic environment because we use all the visual and performing arts. We also have a strong reading, science and math curriculum from elementary to middle school. It’s a place where we believe in the children.
“Children are encouraged to use their imaginations. When we teach we are not just thinking about doing well in 2012. We see into the future. We are preparing them for that future. That’s what I see when they bring the house down at events like this,” Muhaimir said.
Middle schoolers will hold their Paragon Night on Wednesday, June 6. The school will also host its first Talent Showcase this Thursday, May 10.
Concerned Black Men board member James Newton said that the non-profit youth mentoring organization has a strong reason when it adopts a school. The West Oak Lane based group has been bringing in volunteers to work with the middle school boys at the David Birney Elementary School in Logan this past school year. The reason is because they heard it was a “turnaround” school and wanted to help turn it around.
Newton admitted it seemed to be daunting task as the experienced volunteers, some of whom are retired police officers, entered the school at 900 W. Lindley Ave. The school already had a reputation for being “tough school.” Though the group was founded turning around gang members, this was a unique challenge for CBM.
“The reason we wanted to be there is because we were impressed by the principal Dr. Bernard James,” said Newton. “Some schools have problems but don’t want anyone in there. They are afraid that you will see their problems and that will let them look bad.
“I think a stronger approach is to admit you have problems. Then you can ask for help. CBM is one group that is willing to help. We have been working with middle school boys for many years with our chess program, our mentoring program and other programs. We give out scholarships to high school students, but we’ve even given some middle school students college scholarships,” Newton said.
Newton said he hoped that CBM could be of service to the Birney School for years to come. CBM has adopted other Philadelphia School District middle schools over the years. For more information about CBM call 215-276-2260 or visit their website at www.cbmnational.org.
Dr. Bernard X. James Sr. is as proud of his full name as he is the David Birney School in Logan. As the 2011-2012 academic year is coming to a close he is amazed how the teachers, administrators and other staff have joined together to improve the school environment. Yet they all came on board less than a year ago as the Birney School, with its lower and middle school grades, is a “turnaround” school.
James is particularly proud of the fact that there is a new “honor culture” at Birney. He is quick to note that often in lower income and working class inner-city communities those in the neighborhood may not celebrate the student scholars who consistently are on the honor roll. This is not the case at Birney, he said.
“We believe that all of our children can learn to read and read well,” said James. “Education is not just for a few. That means that we teach the students history, math, science and all the things to make them part of that honor culture.”
Aesthetics is an integral part of a strong curriculum, according to James. He said that while many of public schools across the nation are seeing cuts to their art, music and physical education budgets, which is not the case at Birney. In fact the students are all exposed to the performing arts, the visual arts, and even newer genres like spoken word.
“The arts teach the students about dignity of self,” James said, adding that John Graves teaches drama, dance, and music to the entire student body. “When you learn about your history together with literature and the arts and sciences you create an environment where education (can flourish). Our children then enter a world with a sense of that dignity and increased awareness.”
Another aspect of this “honors culture” is encouraging the students to set higher education as their goal. James is quick to point out that among the alma maters of the teachers are schools like Howard University, the University of Virginia, Temple University, Ohio State, and Morehouse College.
“The kids understand they are part of this culture. So as our staff works with the parents and the students together we can make that difference and it shows,” James said. “There’s a lot of treasure in these young earthen vessels. We just are working hard to bring all that treasure out.”
Three generations of Angela Williams’ family has lived in Logan. She remembers when the residential tree-lined community boasted of well maintained home and one was proud to say they were a student or alumnus of the David Birney School. Gradually she saw the school located at 900 W. Lindley Ave. go from being a solid neighborhood school to being a building that folks tried to avoid sending their youngsters to.
Williams had her own apprehensions when her daughter, Christine Williams, had to place her 6-year-old son, Corey Williams, in the K-8 neighborhood school. Ironically, Christine Williams is a Birney alumnus. Angela Williams decided to give Birney a try when she learned that it was a “turnaround” school. She was present for the recent Paragon Night where young Corey was dressed as one of the orange and blue animal characters.
“The students here just do amazing things,” said Angela Williams. “Corey actually came home with a list of 65 spelling words. I thought it was a bit much for the students to be given that many. Between working with him at home and what he learned in school he actually was able to master those words. It was truly amazing to see how students progress here.”
Yet Williams said that the school works because so many parents are committed to ensuring that their children and grandchildren are well educated. She is among the entourage of parents, grandparents or guardians who volunteer in the classroom. Others volunteer in the hallways, with the Birney Home and School Association, or at special events.
What impressed Angela Williams most this past school year is the fact that the school welcomes parental presence. She said that this is certainly not the case when any institution has something to hide. “The fact that you can come in here and they are open about where they need help with whatever problems creates a better learning environment,” she said.
Angela Williams recalls that as little as two years ago Birney was a building to be feared in Logan. She said that there was “always a lot of drama” and chaos as the children were entering and leaving school. The students were largely unsupervised in the yard, she recalled.
“That old school is gone,” insisted Angela Williams. “I walk my grandson here in the mornings. I am pleased to say the yard is organized. The children are always supervised in the yard. I really like the school now. Ever since the switchover, it’s like being in a different place.”