The Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School sets the bar of excellence in the School District of Philadelphia with test scores at the highest level within the Pennsylvania System of Statewide Assessment. It is an accolade that both the middle school and high school do not take lightly.
Their goal is “Dare to Be Excellent” and Masterman’s principal, Marjorie Neff, continually encourages her students to keep pushing themselves. Neff has been leading the school for the past six years and oversaw President Barack Obama’s visit to Masterman last year. He delivered the televised annual Back to School address at the school.
“It’s been fantastic. I was an elementary principal for 10 years, so it was a big adjustment for me to move and work with middle grade students and high school students, but I have a tremendous, tremendous staff here. The kids and the families are just amazing to work with,” Neff said.
Neff acknowledged that it was daunting for her when she began her tenure at the college preparatory school.
“It was somewhat intimidating. I came from a very small elementary school with only 300 students and Masterman has a fine reputation. I think what I knew going in is that I’m not as smart as, nor will I ever be as smart as, many of the students here or the staff,” she said. “But I brought experiences as an administrator that I knew could support them. I was excited about the opportunity to support academically really talented kids to see what they could achieve.”
The past week saw Masterman welcome prospective parents for an open house program. The highly competitive school even has their own eighth-graders reapply for admission into Masterman’s high school.
“It’s a very rigorous, fast moving classroom experience for kids and so it’s not for the faint at heart,” she said.
“… this school is specifically designed to meet the needs of kids who show academic talent. So, we’re able to accelerate the curriculum. So, maybe kids who weren’t moving as quickly as they could in their previous school are now challenged to do more.”
Masterman has a relationship with Community College of Philadelphia, which is directly across the street from the school. A class of 21 seniors takes a high-level math course at the college. The ability of the students has enabled the teachers to do more in their classrooms.
“Many of the kids, they’re proficient students, but that doesn’t mean they have the same level of interest or the same level of support or challenges — but for the most part, they’re all good at being students. They know what that means. They know how to stay organized which is a challenge,” Brent Gray said.
“You spend so much of your teaching life thinking about that — but you don’t have to think about it as much here. So, you have to think more about which content they’re really absorbing, and ‘how do I go from here?’”
Gray is also in his sixth year at Masterman and teaches science and math.
“It’s all driven by the kids. They will pull you as fast as you can go,” Gray said.
“It’s the best place ever.”
John Lee has taught at Masterman for 21 years and gave credit to the students for his endurance and enthusiasm.
“I really like teaching and the kids make me feel young. I’m 63 now and still feeling like 40,” Lee said. “The students are so enlightening.”
Genielle Parham, in her fourth year as a science teacher, echoed the sentiments.
“As a teacher, I find it refreshing because instead of having to deal with a lot of discipline, you actually get to teach. I get to communicate to my students about my love of science,” Parham said. “As a school, [we have] great kids, great staff; just a great community. We really are a family and I feel very blessed to be here.”
However, just like the other schools in the district, Masterman has been dealt the same budget woes.
“As are many of the Philadelphia schools, we are subject to the same budget cuts all of the schools are subjected to. It means that the class sizes are a little bit bigger than they were last year,” Neff said. “It means that the range of courses that we were able to offer last year are fewer than they were before. The dual enrollment opportunities are much more limited this year.”
She gave an example: “The district just recently informed us that they couldn’t support middle school athletics centrally except for football and field hockey, neither of which we have here for middle school,” Neff said. “So, I’m trying to figure out, within the confines of our very limited budget, how I’m going to continue our six middle school sports.”
Nonetheless, Neff was insistent that the cuts would not lower the school’s bar of excellence in not just academia, but the whole student. She stressed that they would dare to do what they are capable of.
“We’re looking forward to another great year,” Neff said.
Jonas Crenshaw Jr. moved from Mississippi to Philadelphia to assume the responsibilities as principal of Tilden Middle School. With one year under his belt, the consensus is clear that he has already achieved high honors.
“He’s supposed to be here. He’s the person, I believe, [who] is ordained to be here,” said Nancy Golden, assistant principal. “This is his season to be here and to impact the lives of these children.”
Crenshaw, now in his ninth year in administration, brought with him to Tilden a high level of enthusiasm that has been infectious. This past summer, he rallied the faculty and some students to help edify the school.
“One of the things I noticed last year was that there was not a lot of school spirit here when I got here. So, definitely, we’ve been working to make the school a place students are proud of physically and aesthetically,” he said.
Crenshaw’s positive outlook and desire to be proactive has created a cause and effect that is hard not to notice or be in awe of.
“He’s a wonderful, wonderful person. He’s really committed to our children. He loves our kids,” said teacher Jodan Floyd. “He loves the school and the community. He’s trying to bring the community into the school and the school into the community with wonderful innovative things.”
The creation of the C.A.R.E. bucks has really motivated the students to be on their best behavior.
“That’s an incentive for students to do the right thing, follow the rules, be engaged in the educational process, take responsibility for their learning and that kind of thing, be respectful and when we notice that the students follow the rules, they’re able to receive these bucks and at the end of the week, they can redeem them for some wonderful prizes that we have,” Golden said.
Above all else, the 400 students that attend Tilden know they have a principal who walks the hallway and cares. It is a support that is supplemented by the staff.
“Our school motto is Team Tilden, one community achieving global success, and the idea is that we have to work together as a team. And so, I work very hard to build a team with the faculty, the parents, finding ways to show the faculty that they are valued and so what we are now is a family, and I’m excited because it’s very rare that you go to a school and teachers enjoy each other,” he said.
“We enjoy hanging outside of school together. We work together on projects. We roll up our sleevesand get things done around here. And so, I just think that’s amazing that we have a tram that’s so committed to our students.”
Russ Maxemaw, dean of students, echoed the sentiment. He said everyone was moving in the same direction.
“We’re like one big huge family. Everybody has each other’s back. So, if I need something, I can go to anybody and they will help me out. So, I’ll do the same for them,” Maxemaw said.
“I always say that I have four kids at home. I have 400 and something here. So, I technically have over 450 kids.”
Oct. 6 will be Tilden’s back-to-school night, but parents have already weighed in on the difference Crenshaw has made.
“He honestly cares,” Pamela Mack Edwards said.
“He’s walking the halls. He’s interacting. He’s doing things more for the kids.”
Deborah Brewer added.
“The school didn’t look so clean and it was loud and rowdy when I had to come,” Brewer said.
“But it’s quiet when you come in now. You don’t hear students hollering in the room. You don’t see them hanging in the hallways. I think the school has really improved.”
Crenshaw was happy to give of himself, including spending long hours at the office, if his students ultimately benefit.
“What I want my students to understand is that whenever they go out representing the school, they’re going to be first-class students and I want to give them all the experiences that they would get in any other school,” Crenshaw said.
“I want Tilden to be the premiere middle school in the school district, and so it’s that expectation that we offer to the students in creating school spirit.”
Dr. Tamara Thomas-Smith not only became a new mother again this past summer, but she was appointed to replace Edward Hoffman as principal of Russell H. Conwell Middle Magnet School.
He served in the capacity for many years, and under his leadership, Conwell became the number one middle school in Philadelphia.
Smith acknowledged that she was following after a legend, but said she was more than ready to begin her imprint on the school. She first had to tackle the budget cuts, which greatly affected schools across the city.
“I worry about the stuff I can change. I can’t change the budget cuts,” Smith said. “But the stuff I can change, that’s what I put most of my energy to.”
Her focus has been to make sure the school and its students do not rest on their laurels.
“I feel when I walk through the doors every day that I have to work just as hard and put just as much effort and actually request the same of my staff, because every parent has at least one kid in this school who’s special to them, and if that one kid isn’t in that group that’s proficient or advanced, there’s work to be done,” she said. “All of our children should have the option of going to college. That should be their choice. If they don’t go, it should be because they chose not to go, not because they’re not qualified or prepared to do so.”
Smith feels strongly that the students should not get comfortable, but should reach beyond the standard of excellence that Conwell is known for.
“We don’t want our students to get to a ceiling where they stop. We want them to excel,” she said. “I know it’s easy once students get to that point where they’re advanced or proficient to just say they’re independent learners and they can go on. They still need our encouragement.
We still need to make certain that they get just as much attention as the students who may still be struggling.”
Smith rose through the ranks of the School District of Philadelphia as a substitute teacher, expressive arts teacher, dean of students, athletic director and basketball coach. “I think all of those different jobs in the past have prepared me to take on this challenge,” she said. “You have to be willing to do what you’re asking the others to do. Or at least have done it.”
The mother of four has already received honors from the faculty.
“I like her a lot. She really has an open-door policy. She’s there when you need her,” said Michael Rocco, a seventh-grade social studies teacher.
“I think she’s really brought the staff together in the transition. A lot of us were really loyal to Mr. Hoffman, but really … it’s the building itself where you need to be, and the job itself, and she’s continuing that. She’s pushing us forward.”
Erica M. Green, the assistant principal, shared her admiration.
“Dr. Smith and I have a great partnership, which makes it really good. She is really focused, has a clear vision and she makes sure what the vision is,” Green said. “She’s somebody who knows what’s on the cutting edge of education.”
Green elaborated on Smith’s commitment to upholding Conwell’s reputation as a top-notch school.
“We’re celebrating the Conwell spirit, which consists of stellar students. It consists of the committed staff members. Our young people here have a certain je ne sais quoi,” Green said.
“They have a certain charisma to them. There’s something about them, that they have their own leadership qualities that set them apart.”
Nicole Leone, who teaches seventh-grade reading, added her view.
“I think she’s come in with a lot of different ideas. It’s a new leadership style, definitely, that she has, but I like the way things seem to be going,” Leone said. “I think it’s a good school with a lot of hard-working teachers who really care about the students and try to really help them to be successful.”
Smith pledged to be with Conwell for the long haul to help extend its success.
“I’ll go for as long as they’ll have me,” she said.
William T. Tilden Middle School opened its doors in 1926, but this past year has been almost a new beginning.
Principal Jonas Crenshaw Jr. came to Tilden last year and had the task of not only bringing up test scores, but raising morale that had not only eroded in the building but in the surrounding neighborhood. Community residents complained about the Tilden premises being littered by trash and about unruly students. Mississippi transplant Crenshaw did not get overwhelmed, but went to work toward restoring Tilden’s reputation across all fronts.
“It was a year of observation and becoming acclimated to the school district and to this community and this neighborhood, and through that year, I identified some things that I’d like to see improved and some goals, and so we’ve worked very tirelessly over the summer to try and put a lot of things in place,” Crenshaw said.
“I think the parents, the students, the community have all responded well, and we’re really taking off and doing some great things this year.”
Crenshaw placed an emphasis on Team Tilden, one community achieving global success. That spirit has been fostered by the introduction of C.A.R.E. bucks. Students are rewarded with play money for demonstrating citizenship, attitude, respect and effort. He also navigated his way around budget cuts and the issues that plagued the School District of Philadelphia.
“The reality is, wherever you are, there will always be challenges and there will always be cycles of difficulty, but I think the thing that you have to do is stay focused on the work that has to be done at your place,” he said.
“You have to stay in your lane, because our work is still very important. I have a very serious task of not only educating students, but working with middle students, and for that age group where they are developing their personalities,” Crenshaw said.
“When you look at the research that says students [who] are not successful by their eighth-grade year have a higher likelihood of dropping out, then that’s a serious task for me, and so I can’t get distracted by a lot of the things that are taking place and a lot of political things,” he said.
“But the job that I have is to make sure that my kids and my teachers are happy about coming here and doing the job that has to be done. So, we kind of build an invisible bubble around the school and we drive through that bubble every morning and we keep our blinders on and we take care of things here.”
Tilden’s resurgence has been aided by the efforts of the faculty, especially the returning Nancy Golden. The assistant principal is back for her second tour of duty.
“We’re going up,” she said. “We’re moving up. We’re not in a downward spiral. We’re jut moving and growing and the whole building is just becoming a better place, and as a result of that, the community sees it, because when I go to the store to get my lunch, they’ll say to me, ‘I love that nice sign on the corner,’ ‘I love the flowers, ‘the kids are nicer,’ ‘What’s going on over there?’ When people see the leader doing certain things like planting, working on Sundays, giving of themselves, you have no other choice but to follow that leadership.”
Golden also credited the faculty’s ability to relate to the students.
“The middle school kid, they’re very savvy and they’re very big on respect,” she said. “They are growing into young adults and they can discern when you are being patronizing to them. Just be honest and open. Expect greatness with them, but you also have to be consistent with your rules and expectations.”
Jodan Floyd is beginning her 10th year as a teacher at Tilden; even at nine months pregnant, she was still making her presence felt in the classroom. She teaches sixth, seventh and eighth grades. She found seventh-graders to be the most challenging.
“They’re sort of in that in-between stage. They’re not babies, but they’re not eighth-graders yet. I’ve always found that my eighth-graders are my favorite group of children because they’re so much more independent. You can have conversations with them and they’re getting ready to go into high school, and what you say to them has a real impact,” she said. “I can talk to the seventh-grade class about how important it is to do well this year, but it’s not going to hit them until later in the year or next year.”
Keita Doe felt a special connection to the school where she has taught at since 1998.
“I’m married into this school,” she said. “I’ve been here for so long and all the kids and the families in the neighborhood, they all know me so I don’t have to start every year by starting over again. I’ve taught many of these children’s siblings and cousins.”
David Turner, sixth-grade English and science teacher, taught at Tilden six years ago. He returned this year. He shared his hopes for the school year.
“I think we are headed in the right direction,” Turner said. “My hope is that academically, we will make A.Y.P. (Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act) and socially, that they will grow up into mature young men young women that they already are.”
Parents were also in full praise of the marked difference that has taken place.
“I’ve seen patience, and patience goes a long way with teenage kids,” Pamela Mack Edwards said.
The Philadelphia High School for Girls, deep in its traditions and spirit, has been extending their legacy with Dr. Parthenia A. Moore as its principal.
Moore, who graduated from Girls’ High in 1971, has come full circle. She has gone from being the student to sitting in the big chair and ensuring a foundation that aided fellow alumni such as R&B singers Jill Scott, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC and powerhouse attorney Gloria Allred.
Moore has been the principal of Girls’ High for more than a year now, but never dreamed of returning as the school’s leader.
“I never thought I’d be here at Girls’ High. I’ve been a principal before. I’ve been an assistant principal. I’ve even been an assistant superintendent or a regional superintendent here in the district,” Moore said.
“But the opportunity, when given to me by the superintendent to come to Girls’ High, to me was the highest honor I felt that had been bestowed upon me as an educator in my professional life.”
One item on Moore’s agenda has been to raise the bar of excellence even higher at the college preparatory school.
“We set high expectations for them about what it is that they should be doing academically, behaviorally and socially,” she said.
“We let them know what it will take for them to get to the ninth grade at Girls’ High through the twelfth grade and then beyond.”
Moore talked about what each Girls’ High student meant to her.
“It’s my love for the school, the history that I have with the school, having been a graduate, that keeps me pushing and making sure everything is in place,” Moore said.
“I call each one of the girls my daughters. They all belong to me. So, I have almost 1,100 children that are mine. I didn’t give birth to them, but I feel like I’m birthing them every day and helping them to be nurtured and do the things that need to be done.”
The personnel at Girls High have been just as determined to do their parts.
“It has been wonderful. I think several things happen to anyone who comes in the building. One, you fall in love with the school and the girls,” Antoinette L. Chapman, assistant principal, said.
“And then you quickly learn about the dedication of the teachers to the students and it’s always pleasurable working with young people, particularly young people who have matured to the point of focus.”
Dale Matthes, the school’s other assistant principal, shared her thoughts as well.
“We’re looking for the smartest, but we’re also looking for the nicest too,” she said.
“Technology is wonderful, but technology gets old. What you learn today may be obsolete in two years. So what’s really crucial is, can you problem-solve? Can you be resilient? Can you make it through anything? Can you be self-reliant? Do you believe in yourself?”
Joseph Marchetti is the department chair of humanities, has taught at Girls’ High since 2003.
“I love being here. I think we have brightest, most talented girls here in the city. Every day is an adventure,” he said.
“Art is probably the most important thing that you can have in a student’s life. It’s experiential, visual, cognitive and at the same time, it’s therapeutic. It’s introspective and extroverted,” he said.
“You have to look within yourself and also look around yourself. And I think the other thing it teaches is empathy, because you have to understand what the person you’re sitting next to is going through.”
Marchetti also had words of praise for Moore’s leadership.
“Dr. Moore is an excellent principal. It’s nice to have a graduate. She’s an alumna and I think that’s a very important thing,” he said.
“When you’re 16 and 17 and you’re not quite sure what you want to do in life, it’s nice to have faculty that graduated from Girls’ High because they become role models, and I think for students, she is a role model of what you can become.”
Stuart Surrey, who teaches advanced biology, shared the sentiment.
“She’s very supportive, very interested in making things better for the school and outing in more programs,” he said.
Surrey was just as complimentary about his experience thus far at Girls’.
“The girls are all very motivated. They’re college-bound. It’s a wonderful place to work. In spite of what you might hear about the School District of Philadelphia, I enjoy working at Girls’ High,” he said.
Moore said her desire was to continue making the school on the hill not only one of the premiere schools in the city, but nationwide, despite any challenges that may arise.
“When I first started teaching years ago, we talked about (how) we can’t change what’s happened outside or the environment from which our students come, but we change what goes on inside so that those things that need to occur academically, socially, behaviorally. We build upon that and make better what happens in our building,” Moore said.
“So, with all that was going on outside and there’s always something politically or within communities that’s happening, we still have to maintain what needs to happen here in our schools, and we’ve done a really good job of at maintaining that culture and climate of Girls’ High that precedes us by 163-plus years.”
Walter G. Smith Elementary School has a new principal in Rachel Marianno who is determined to see the school strive beyond its potential despite statistics that state otherwise on paper. The tests scores may be low but that has not capped Marianno’s belief in the potential of her K-8 students.
Marianno was filled with emotions during the first full week of school, which concluded with a back to school night attended by more than 400 parents.
“Challenging, rewarding, exhausting, rejuvenating; if you could put all of those things into one sentence. It’s been a lot of work but good work,” Marianno said.
She was overjoyed that so many parents attended back to school night held in the school yard. A moon bounce and cotton candy machine were just some of the amenities offered to the kids as their guardians came into the building to meet with teachers.
“It’s about reaching parents in a way that confirms who they are and what they are about.
A lot of our parents have responsibilities that go far beyond what we had or even our great-grandparents had in the past,” Marianno said. “So, they’re raising children on their own but without the support of an extended family. So, you’ve got to find a way to network with them.”
Another crucial part of Marianno’s agenda has been to help raise test scores. Her goal is to raise the Adequate Yearly Progress, otherwise known as the AYP, but not at the expense of making the children feel bad about themselves. Smith’s new motto is “Where Above Average Is the Norm.’”
“I struggled with that because on paper, we are not above average. We’re 30 percent at advanced and proficient in the area of reading. That’s not above the average. But our mindset in order to get there, it has to start here. It has to start in your head. So, therefore, I can fully embrace that model,” she said. “It’s a careful balance because I don’t want to come in here with a pie in the sky attitude like you can do it and not acknowledge how you can do it. I want our children and our parents and the whole community to embrace the fact that we are from an AYP standard not cutting it.”
She further explained another area that will help reinforce the student’s abilities, which are not correlating with standardized tests.
“The other part of the model is SOULFUL, which is School Of Unlimited Learning For Unlimited Learners and that’s something that has been with me since I went into administration,” she said. “I want children to know that there are no limits.”
Smith’s renewed efforts to get the test scores up has been a team effort. All of the teachers have been doing their parts since the first bell rang this school year.
“They’re getting to know my expectations and I’m getting to know things about them which makes learning better. It just makes everything better,” Chanel Pope said.
Pope teaches fifth grade and this is her first year at Smith.
“I expect my children to give 100 percent effort every day because I believe every child can learn. Every student has their own talents. Every student has their own gifts and it’s just my job to bring some of those gifts, talents and interests but also try to make sure they meet the curriculum standards,” Pope said. “We’re striving for proficiency.”
Tangela McClam has taught at Smith since 2007. The seventh-grade math teacher tries to incorporate pats on the back for her students as they work through solving equations. She has also tied to prepare them early on in the school year for what is to come.
“One of the things that I really like to make sure my students understand is the importance of the test. We don’t wait until the day before the test to do that.
So, I tell them on day one that they should look at the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) as a major test that we’re going to run and we only get one shot to run that race and we’ve been training all year long. So, we’ve got to get our stamina up. That’s how we look at it,” she said. “Some students aren’t good test takers but we still have to continue to strive to not only make every child feel important because we don’t want them to feel, ‘oh I’m below basic I’m not important,’ because anytime you turn children into numbers, you’re doing them a disservice. But we just have to find other ways to address them.”
John Waters, another teacher at Smith, believed that the aesthetics of the school has also gone a long way towards improving morale.
“It’s such a nice place to be. Ms. Marianno has gotten the place so cleaned up,” Waters said. “By cleaning up the school the way that she has and having the special events come in, I think that the children feel more respected. I think that when the school was dirtier, the children didn’t take the school seriously and I feel they’re taking things a little more seriously now.”
Marianno also credited the youth for already rising to the challenges facing them this upcoming year.
“The kids keep me motivated,” she said. “They are resilient and no matter what you throw at them, for a long period time, they will bounce back. Not without some wounds, but they will bounce back and they’ll say something that just motivates me and they’ll usually do it on a day that I need it the most. They won’t necessarily know what they’re doing for me but they’ll just say something that gets to the heart of the matter.”
The University of the Arts once again welcomed juniors and seniors from high schools into its pre-college summer institute. UArts has been touted as the country’s most dynamic summer program for students passionate about the visual and performing arts and this past summer proved to be no different.
It started July 10 with students moving onto the campus and taking courses. It ended Aug. 6. The acclaimed four-week residential programs rewarded the kids with three college credits.
“We have several programs. We have a dance program, musical theater, acting, art and media and a jazz program for music. And so, depending on what program the student was in, they participated in courses, college-level courses, from Monday through Friday,” Wingate said.
“The program also includes lots of field trips, going to see exhibitions or going to see guest artists. We also have some social activities that they get to participate in, field trips to the beach and New York City.”
She described how the pre-college institute helped to develop the kids beyond just academics.
“I think they’ve taken an incredible amount from the experience. Not only do they get the academic element of it, where they’re actually participating in college-level courses on a college campus, there’s also a social element of living in residence hall and being on their own even if it’s just for a couple of weeks that really sort of fosters their independence,” she said.
“So, what we saw a lot this summer was not only students who were learning new mediums, but sort of learning a whole new skill set that they could take with them.”
Wingate has been the program coordinator for over a year and a half, but was previously on the faculty and before that, a student.
“Each one of my roles has been very different. I loved being a student here in pre-college. I felt very much at home in the university, and that’s why I ended up choosing University of the Arts as the college I went to,” she said.
“So of course I loved being a student in the undergraduate program, and I researched how I could get involved.”
Christina Day, senior lecturer in the undergraduate crafts department, taught pre-college classes. She has been working with summer students since 2006.
“It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed, because getting to know students at that age right when they’re figuring out what they’re good at and what they like to do genuinely, it’s a really interesting age to be,” Day said.
The students are ages 16–18 and Day felt that this was just when they started to become more sure of themselves.
“They take a lot of risks. They’re willing to try different things,” she said.
“It’s really about turning people in the right direction.”
“I think situations like this, experiences like this help wake children a little bit earlier,” she added.
Richard Mitchell, 17, participated in the summer program for the second year in a row. He is now a senior at Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School and expressed satisfaction over his time spent enrolled in the UArts program.
“I actually live in the suburbs, and being able to come out to Philadelphia and just kind of experience what the atmosphere was like in the city, it was exciting and all around, it was just really awesome. I know that a lot of kids missed home, but to me, it was a chance to be independent. It was very freeing,” Mitchell said.
He said he wants to major in musical theater, adding that this program prepared him for the next challenge in his life.
“It made me realize that I was out there for myself and I had to do what I needed to do in order to be successful. So, it wasn’t intimidating. It was just more eye-opening,” he said.
Mitchell also offered advice for other students who were interested in participating in this program.
“They’re going to find out who they are and what they want to be through this experience,” he said.
Wingate had words of encouragement as well.
“We saw a lot of students who were starting to advocate for themselves, learned a lot more about themselves and trusted their instincts, were very confident by the end of the program,” she said.
“I would say that the three main tings that I hope they took away was number one confidence, number two, a new set of skills and techniques, and I guess I would say the third thing is, I hope they take away a broadened view of the arts.”
Tips for Middle School Students
A new school year has started and for many students, it marks the threshold to a new beginning. For eighth-graders, it is their last year of transition before they enter the first year of high school and start seriously considering college.
There are many useful tips that eighth-graders can take advantage of while in the classroom this year to ensure successful educational futures.
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.”
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.”