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.
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.”
Samuel W. Pennypacker School has taken a no tolerance for bullying stance.
Counselor Joan Genaw and dean Austin Wallace are quick to point out that they have the backs of the students who are bullied as well as those who report bullying directed at them or other students. To this end, the school has “No Bully Zone” signs lining its hallways.
Genaw said that bullying had escalated at the school during the fall. By November, the school became part of the Oleeus Bullying Program to address it. All faculty, staff and students are involved in weekly sessions to bring to attention what bullying is.
“It’s really important to define bullying,” Genaw said. “Sometimes people will think that it’s just teasing without realizing that most of what we call teasing is bullying. Once the students understand what bullying is, they can look for the signs of it.
“They then engage in peer mediation. The fifth- and sixth-graders are trained in ways to resolve conflicts. This helps students to reduce the bullying and support the students who are bullying. We also (are committed) to addressing the bullying once it is reported,” Genaw said.
Wallace directly attributes the increased bullying at the beginning of the school year to social media. He said that as younger students are getting on Facebook and Twitter, they are actually cyberbullying. This, he said, is often worse than the old fashioned face-to-face bullying.
“For one thing it extends the bullying beyond the school day,” said Wallace. “With social media they can carry it on for hours after they leave school. That in itself escalates it. So, social media is definitely a catalyst with more students having cell phones and being online. Now they can bully for hours at a time.”
To this end, Wallace said that while the school can do its part, parents also play a role in ending bullying. He said that parents “must become partners” with the school by modeling what it means to be “productive citizen.” This may involve monitoring their child’s social media interactions or even banning them from it if they are the bullies. Parents, too, may have to look at their own social media behaviors.
“I think sometimes parents underestimate the voice they can have in their child’s life,” Wallace said. “I believe that as we at the Philadelphia School District address this problem; parents can also do the same. It might be something as simple as playing basketball with them and turning it into a math lesson or walking through the neighborhood and make it a science lesson.
“The important thing is interacting with your child. The message I want to tell parents is to not only monitor your child but also never underestimate the effect of positive attention. That plays a bit part in addressing this,” Wallace said.
Aaliyah Simmons, Tiani Fitts, Rayana Bradley and Jamar Simpson, all of West Oak Lane, as well as Rayaina Green, of Mount Airy, all have something in common. On the surface they are all 11-year-old fifth-graders at the Samuel W. Pennypacker School.
Yet as members of the Leader of the Pack club, they are all working to remove bullying from their school’s classrooms and corridors.
Rayana was recently in music class when two of her peers began arguing about a pencil. As one was more aggressive than the other, Bradley quickly remembered some of the conflict resolution techniques she learned in a Leader of the Pack session. Though it didn’t squelch the confrontation, the “I’m telling” rather than “no snitching” resolution technique learned through the club helped restore the classroom equilibrium.
“I’ve learned that bullies become bullies sometimes because of their homes,” said Rayana. “Sometimes they are bullied at home. So then they come to school and bully others. By learning about the different scenarios, and sometimes acting them, out it helps us to have good ideas about handling bullies.”
“What I’ve really learned is that bullies can put everyone in danger,” said Jamar. “Sometimes they are jealous of others. They may like getting others in trouble. At least when we tell, Mrs. Genaw (the counselor) will take care of it. That way no one is in danger.”
Rayaina, who has been at Pennypacker since she was in kindergarten, is pleased that there is now a no tolerance for bullying culture at the school. She credits the addition of Wendy Baldwin as principal for it.
“When you have a principal that changes things and makes sure that teachers help stop the bullying, that’s important,” Rayaina said.
Tiani agreed. She said that students have to feel safe that when they tell an adult in the school building that they are being bullied — that it will be addressed immediately.
“We know that if we tell Mr. (Austin) Wallace, the dean, that he is going to stop it,” she said. “This helps the children to open up and talk about it because that’s the only way to stop the bullying.”
Aaliyah added that is important to define bullying and show its ramifications. She readily admitted that before joining Leader of the Pack and attending weekly bullying education sessions at Pennypacker, she was not clear what bullying was.
“When you watch films about the effects and how some people have even committed suicide then you realize how serious it is,” she said.
“There are even some people who think that being a bully will make them more popular,” Simmons said. “I’ve learned that it is always wrong to bully. I’m glad they are (addressing) it at this school because it makes us feel safe.”