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.”
Although the test scores at Joseph Pennell Elementary School are low and the school is working toward making Adequate Yearly Progress, the students are held to a higher standard.
“We don’t refer to our kids as students. We really refer to them as scholars,” Principal Jason Harris said. “It’s an exciting place to be because everybody here is new. All of the faculty here, for the most part, is new and so it gives us an opportunity to really shape this school the way we really want to.”
Harris initially agreed to become the principal of Pennell when he thought it would be turned into a Promise Academy. Those plans fell through because of budget constraints. However, Harris chose to stay and help turn around the low performing school.
“As a turnaround administrator, you work with what you have and you still make a difference,” Harris said. “So we’re still implementing a lot of the initiatives that were associated with the Promise Academy because they’re just best practice initiatives anyway such as professional development, positive behavior support and all those things that a school should have in the first place.”
Another key component was to change how the students viewed themselves and the perceptions others had of them.
“I’m charged with being accountable for scores, but that’s part of my job. My main goal is to really make sure that we are advancing students so that they are successful period,” Harris said. “It requires changing systems and that doesn’t happen overnight. It requires changing belief systems and that can take a long time to do. There’s a lot more work to do but I see a lot of progress.”
Thus far, the scholar mindset is one that has been embraced across the board at Pennell.
“I love it. Whatever you keep saying to them and keep in front of the students’ eyes, that’s what they’ll cling to,” said Trina Pemberton, a sixth-grade teacher. “It’s changing their mindset. I’m not a clown. I’m not hanging around. No, I’m a scholar. I’m an educated young man. I’m an educated young woman. I strongly believe in the power of words and the power in how you think affects how you act. And so, if they think like scholars, they’ll act like scholars.”
Pemberton has reinforced that they are scholars even though the test scores reflect differently.
“It’s a little frustrating because I see the potential in them. I look at their scores from previous years. I know that they make great gains when they come to me so it’s disappointing when it comes back and yeah, that wasn’t good enough,” she said. “But I don’t give up. I keep pushing. I know we’ll get there and I think that this is the year that we can definitely do it because there’s a change in the atmosphere. So, it’ll be good.”
Andrew Walker, another sixth-grade teacher at Pennell, spoke about how his students reacted to being identified as scholars.
“The first day of school, I actually wrote scholars and just what it means. None of them knew what it was at first but I gave them the definition. I told them that’s what I’m going to call you. We all are. Everyone in this school is a scholar,” he said. “It changed their demeanor and just how did they view themselves in the classroom setting. So, they feel they want to uphold that name because it sounds so prestigious. They really like that.”
Harris acknowledged that much rested on his shoulders but he was more than up to the challenge of laying the groundwork in order for Pennell to regain its footing.
“I think it’s all about being confident, being reflective, being able to have that ability to receive criticism and feedback and act accordingly,” Harris said. “If you have a vision for student’s success, then everything else falls into place and you have to be willing to act on that vision too and communicate it well enough so that people will be willing to follow you exactly where it is where you’re going.”
He was prepared to give it his all even during the difficult and trying times.
“This is a school that is making significant changes. We’re on our way. Things will be different and change might be difficult but that’s OK,” he said.