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Why The New School Year Offers Reasons for Hope

Educators on how the school year that starts today in Philly could be one that makes the new normal better than normal

Why The New School Year Offers Reasons for Hope

Educators on how the school year that starts today in Philly could be one that makes the new normal better than normal

Today, 200,000 Philadelphia public school students head back to school. These kids – our kids – are returning to the classroom in a city known for poverty, gun violence, inequity, and … uncompromising hope for the future.

Although most of these students won’t notice, they’ll also be returning to a system under new leadership. In June, the school district’s decade-long Superintendent William Hite stepped down. Dr. Tony Waltington, most recently of North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury School District, is now in charge.

Not everyone is certain what the future holds. But many are hopeful.

The Citizen asked Philadelphians who live and breathe the city’s public, community and charter schools every day – teachers, a behavioral health specialist, after school program director, music educators, a retiree who volunteers at a Tacony elementary school, representatives of innovative educational organizations, a National Principal of the Year – the reasons they’re hopeful for the 2022-2023 school year.

Here’s what they had to say:

Richard Gordon

Principal, Paul Robeson High School, Citizen 2020 Integrity Icon and 2021 National Principal of the Year

I’m always amazed by our students’ resilience. Poverty, gun violence, mental health: To me, all of those are pandemics our students deal with every day. But we are still on track to maintain our 95 percent graduation rate … Our academic potential hasn’t waned even though we face these pandemics every single day.

Also hopeful for: Air conditioning. Together, our school, families and businesses raised $200,000 to fund building improvements, including a new HVAC system.

Sharif El-Mekki

CEO, Center for Black Educator Development

Photo courtesy Center for Black Educator Development

James Baldwin said, “Hope is invented every day.” But hope must be synthesized with inspired, committed, and thoughtful action.

That’s how I’ve looked at the birth of each new school year for the past three decades. New opportunities, new pursuits, but one thing has remained steady: holding myself accountable for the racial and educational justice that the children and communities I serve deserve.

We have an opportunity to build new coalitions in support of Dr. Watlington and the tens of thousands of students who represent our deepest hopes individually and collectively.

Pheng Lim

Principal, Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS)

I look forward to the 2022-23 school year, because in our special little school with the collective hopes and dreams of our families, students, teachers and staff we will be able to grow stronger as a community. I look forward to developing new memories, singing songs together, and getting to know ourselves and others better through learning joyfully and also challenging our assumptions, and what we think we know.

Jessica Zweig

Director of Educational Programming, Play On Philly

There’s nothing that brings more hope to us than seeing stages across Philadelphia filled with an orchestra of young musicians. We debuted our POP Children’s Orchestra this [past school] year. The ensemble is comprised of all of the young musicians from each of our Music Centers, based mainly in West Philly.

This year, the orchestra will get even bigger, with nearly 400 students participating. We’re looking forward to seeing them engage more with each other in this ensemble this year, learning to rely on and support one another, and witnessing how their collective musical experiences bring their communities closer together.

Yaasiyn Muhammad

Assistant Principal, 9th Grade Academy, George Washington High School

I am hopeful for the opportunity to develop lasting and loving relationships with my incoming 9th graders. These relationships will be the foundation for the hard conversations, fun times, and exciting learning that will occur throughout the year.

I am also hopeful for the opportunity to continue to expand George Washington High School’s equity work, as we focus on addressing the educational deficits of our students by planning targeted interventions for Black and Latinx students.

Dave Thomer

Social Studies Teacher, Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush

I know that last year was difficult for many, and I was certainly exhausted by the end of it. But as I watched our students learning and creating together and re-forging our school community, I felt renewed as well.

I’m looking forward to taking that year of learning and continuing to improve. I don’t think “back to normal” is really in the cards, but maybe we can create a new and improved normal for the future.

Dianne “Miss Dianne” Chenault

Second Year Volunteer, Hamilton Disston Elementary School

I am excited to be returning to Disston Elementary because I believe that children are the future and it takes a village. I was drawn to Disston because it is within walking distance to my home and was excited that it had been designated a Community School.

As a recent retiree, I wanted to give my life a more meaningful purpose and become more involved in my community. As a vivid reader of local news, I was pleased to read that the Community School concept was being funded by the much-opposed beverage tax.

I am excited about the new school year, because the Covid trial and error period has ended. The Community School concept is now out of its infancy stage. Several new schools have been added, which speaks highly of the program.

As the word gets out about all the benefits available to not only the students but also their families, I hope that more families will seek out the many programs and benefits that the Community School coordinator can assist them in receiving.

I am also hopeful that more citywide organizations and local Tacony institutions join in the “It Takes a Village” thought needed for the Community Schools to survive and thrive.

I can hear school staff groan, but when I am in the classroom with our future leaders, I find my happy place.

Amber Stallings

OST Site Director, George Washington High School

I am very excited to see how George Washington High School’s OST (out of school time) program continues to blossom this school year. Last year we had an overwhelming amount of students join and attend each week.

This year my team and I are eager to get back into programming and continue our mission to positively impact as many students as we can daily. This school year we are very excited to incorporate new events and activities into our program, including our Spooktacular Harvest Week during the week of Lights on Afterschool (October 17 to 20).

Olukemi Kamson

8th Grade English Teacher, Independence Charter School

My students still feel like they’re so behind. I want them not to worry about where they are now, and just work to get better.

Again this year, I’ll do a historical fiction unit that I really enjoy. It’s not typical historical fiction. I don’t do World War II. I have a list of 10 different titles based on students’ needs. One book, Let Me Hear a Rhyme, focuses on the origin of hip-hop. Students don’t really think of a book about hip-hop as historical fiction, but when they read it, they really enjoy it.

Amy Edelstein

Founder, Inner Strength Education

Photo by Natalie Piserchio

Last year was a bumpy return to in-person school. Everyone had to adjust, and there was still concern about Covid transmission. More resources went toward student and teacher wellness. Those resources have stayed and even expanded, offering a more human-centric approach to education.

Focusing on positive opportunities rather than primarily on the issues that aren’t working gives us more momentum to continue to improve and support each other as school communities.

Kristen A. Graham

Schools Reporter, The Philadelphia Inquirer

I am hopeful about the coming school year because how can anyone who routinely interacts with district kids not be? Whatever the noise is outside – and there’s plenty, from underfunding to environmental concerns – the 200,000 kids enrolled in the school district and charters are flat-out amazing. There is much to worry about, but the start of a new school year always makes me feel a little giddy at the thought of what is possible.

Dominique Dilworth

Behavior Health Specialist, Community Wellness Engagement Unit, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services

The question shouldn’t be what I am hopeful for this school year, but what are the students’ hopes for themselves? This is what truly matters, hearing the voices of the unheard. Their silence is loud. They’re waiting to be seen. They’re waiting for us.

My hopes for this school year are for the students to learn their value to the world. We can deliver this by providing the appropriate resources tailored to their specific needs. This will build confidence for better outcomes of living a productive and healthier lifestyle.

Dave Brindley

Collaboration Director, Unite Philly and Zoning Chair, Walnut Hill Community Association

Community Schools like Locke Elementary facilitate partnerships between individual schools and neighbors who want to see students thrive. Too often, the community does not know what needs the local school has, and the school is not aware of the resources that exist in the neighborhood.

This year, Locke School is emphasizing project-based learning and service. As a member of the Walnut Hill Community Association, I am looking forward to assisting their scholars as they construct plant beds, grow vegetables, and prepare boxes for those in need.

Patricia “Tricia” Bowe-Rivers

President of the Jennie Palmer Missionary Society at St. Paul AME Church

As President of the Jennie Palmer Missionary Society at St. Paul AME Church in Elmwood, I am in partnership with Tilden Middle School to provide students with personal care products. Students are able to “shop” from our closet of items, which include hand lotion, deodorant, tampons, dental floss, body wash …

My reason to be hopeful comes from the increased sense of pride the students have in themselves as a result.

Jenny Bogoni

Executive Director, Read by 4th

Coming out of a pandemic, we know that especially younger children have had learning loss. What’s really exciting to me is that Philly teachers are really understanding the science of how children learn to read.

Our school system has invested an incredible amount in a new curriculum of teacher training. Our schools are aligning the way they teach reading with the way children need to be taught reading. Elementary schools now have literacy coaches, and they are teaching an ELA curriculum that’s culturally competent to our kids here in Philadelphia, and based on the science of reading.

Philadelphia also has a network of Reading Captains that’s unlike any other. Hundreds of trained community volunteers are reaching out to their neighbors to help teach their children to read, to set up neighborhood book fairs, and the like.

This means Philadelphia has both systems-level and grassroots-level investments in reading.

Correction: A previous version of this post listed Dominique Dilworth’s location of employment as Dobbins Career and Technical Education (CTE) High School.



Header photo by Sharif El-Mekki

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