The Samuel W. Pennypacker Elementary School in West Oak Lane is getting a new lease on life. It now has a full-time music teacher and a revived mentally gifted program —assembly programs are also back. The past year saw a full scale holiday program, a Black History Month assembly, and coming soon, a spring concert. The children participate in the Penn Relays, and some fifth-graders are even taking ballroom dancing.
In Robert Gold’s music classroom, the children were using drum sticks on large colored plastic buckets as they play “pass the bucket.” Yet the music room does have some more conventional equipment thanks to Gold securing a $5,000 grant to supplement his classroom. Now students from kindergarten to sixth grade are all experiencing the interdisciplinary lessons music has to offer.
“This is just a good school,” said Tara Williams, whose twin sons, Jahi and Jahim, are third-graders at Pennypacker. The Learning Key caught up with Williams in the hallway outside the main office. The 2011–2012 school year marks their first year at the school located at the corner of Thouron Avenue and Washington Lane.
“My children used to go to other schools,” she said. “Last year they were at the Kinsey School (also in West Oak Lane). I just find this to be one of the best schools. It has one of the better learning environments, and the teachers are great. I am very pleased with the education the twins are getting.”
For Principal Wendy Baldwin, hearing comments from parents like Williams is why she loves her new job. This is her first year serving as principal. She previously spent a decade working at the George Washington Elementary School in South Philadelphia as a special education teacher. It was in January 2011 that she enrolled in the school district’s administrative training initiative, and by May of last year she had completed the program.
Originally, Baldwin hoped to take her experience in the classroom and other educational positions with her as she became an assistant principal. Yet she soon realized that the success she had in Learning Support and Emotional Support classrooms was a firm foundation to take over the helm at a neighborhood school. So, she accepted the principal’s slot at Pennypacker and began her new job in September.
“Working in special education helps me be effective because I have a clear understanding of differential instruction,” Baldwin said. “I think that there are many strategies that work on different levels. I frequently remind my staff that they should address the children’s strengths.”
Baldwin’s office is adorned with a large-scale, richly-hued globe that has shiny brass trim. It was a gift, she said, from state Rep. Dwight Evans who represents the district where the school sits. In many ways the globe represents the principal’s vision for the school.
“We are really creating an environment where children can become critical thinkers,” Baldwin said. “We are making sure that they are college ready. We know that they must compete in a global society. We are fortunate enough to have made AYP for the last few years, and we do have a student body that comes eager to learn.”
To this end, the students have been taking more trips around the neighborhood as well as to the many cultural venues that a cosmopolitan city like Philadelphia has to offer. There are treks to local museums, concerts and other places of interest. Occasionally the school may welcome a guest speaker.
Yet there is still room for improvement, according to Baldwin. One area that she would like to expand is the community involvement in the school through volunteering and other services. She is also working to encourage more parents to become active with the Pennypacker Home and School Association.
“I envision us connecting more with the faith-based organizations,” Baldwin said. “I would also like people from this community to come into the school to start a mentoring program. I think it is important that the community and school partner in this way.”
For 11-year-old Tiani Fitts of West Oak Lane, who transferred to Pennypacker this school year, from Hatfield Elementary School, it’s been a blessing. Tiani is quick to point out that before coming to Pennypacker she was a bit reserved and withdrawn. Because of the nurturing environment she has been able to come out of her shell.
In fact, Tiani is one of the more articulate members of the Leaders of the Pack club. She, along with several other fifth-graders, was recommended for the club because of their academic prowess, citizenship, good behavior and leadership potential. An aspiring singer, Fitts feels that Pennypacker “makes every student special” because of the quality teachers.
“I think this is a place that helps you to do the right thing,” said Jamar Simpson of West Oak Lane, another member of the club. “This is a great place to learn.”
Teacher LaTwyne Wise is the special education liaison and mentors the Leaders of the Pack club. She meets with the students every Wednesday and Friday. Together they’ve taken trips to see the Philadelphia Dance Company, also known as Philadanco, as well as tours of the campuses of Temple and Cheyney universities.
“We take the students who show the potential to lead and show them that they have choices in life,” said Wise. “We want them to know that academics is important and so is discipline, but it takes more than that to be successful. We want them to realize they must be positively driven. So even though they have aspirations like being an architect, to a pediatrician, we basically show them that relating to others is important.”
Rounding out the school environment is Mrs. Campbell, a mainstay in the office. Her official title is “school liaison” but basically it is a “catch all” type of position. She fills in the gaps that are needed whether it’s addressing a truant student, coordinating a fundraising drive to fill in the budgetary gaps, or ensuring that those who come into the building are directed to correct place.
“You can’t have a success school without someone like me,” said Campbell. “I am like the universal remote control because you have to have someone who is available for the parents, the students, the teachers and the principal.”
Baldwin concurred. She said that all parts of the puzzle at Pennypacker make it work for its nearly 500 students.
“We are always growing and trying new things,” Baldwin said. “We’re good and we’re always getting better. I am always looking at ways to be even more successful. It’s nice to make AYP each year, but I think it’s important to keep raising our standards. With exceptional students and staff, I think we’ll continue to do just that.”
This summer several Pennypacker Elementary School students from Northwest Philadelphia are considering attending Cheyney University.
Even though school ended on June 14 and won’t reconvene until September, these youngsters vowed to keep reading, writing and thinking during the hot summer days of July and August. Why? The students want to wear a cap and gown when they earn their college degrees in about a decade.
In a classroom discussion with the school’s extracurricular group Leaders of the Pack, teacher and advisor LaTwyne Wise realized that many of the students had never been to a college commencement. In fact, some had never seen any graduation ceremony. That’s when she decided to write most of the Delaware Valley colleges and universities asking if the Northwest Philadelphia students could attend their graduation.
“Cheyney University was the only one who responded,” Wise said. “Not only did they give the students a chance to see a graduation, but they rolled out the red carpet for us. I was able to take 15 students, and they put us in the reserved section right up front. We were up in the front of the tent where we could see the Rev. Jesse Jackson up close.”
Students such as Tiana Fitts of West Oak Lane and Rayaina Green of Mount Airy readily admitted one event changed their lives. For Fitts it was the words of the commencement speaker, Terrence Howard, that she will remember this summer.
“He said while relationships are important, we all still have to work hard to reach our goal,” she said.
What stood out was the message to keep moving forward, according to Green. “Sometimes we might mess up, but we can’t go through life looking back at what you should have done,” she said. “I will remember that.”
Aaliyah Simmons of West Oak Lane said though she has been to college graduations for various family members before, but it was special to go to one with her classmates.
“Going to Cheyney, and the way they treated us, made me think I might want to go to college there,” she said. “I like the campus and it was fun to make it a class trip.”
Wise said the Cheyney administrators said they would welcome Pennypacker students at their commencement again.
“They are taking this experience with them into this summer,” Wise said of the students. “And what an experience, because it was absolutely phenomenal.”