Paradigm means “the epitome, the gold standard, a paragon, a model”. We will learn more about this later. We recently visited First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School. Mr. James P. Stanton, the Director of Communications and Community Relations, gave us a tour and explained the school’s philosophy and mission. Building character and instilling values is key to their success. In preparing for our visit, I had checked out the school’s website to learn more. What I found really intrigued me! Based on the research of the Developmental Studies Center of Oakland, CA, First Philly uses the Caring School Community model that is based on four core principles. First and foremost, students build respectful and supportive relationships with their peers and teachers. Secondly, there are opportunities for collaboration within the school and the larger community. Thirdly, students have a real say in the workings of the classroom and the school which builds their independence and recognition of one’s ability to influence the world around them. Fourthly, the importance of learning and expectations of both caring and positive behaviors establishes standards for students to meet. Class meetings are held on a daily basis to build teamwork, make decisions and to be sure that students are feeling comfortable so they are able to fully participate in the learning process. The mission of First Philly is literacy and to create life-long learners and leaders of the global community. Literacy surrounds you from the moment you enter the building. A large lobby filled with natural light and the school’s library greets you and reminds you that literacy is the focus of all that happens here.
First Philly’s campus makes a big statement at its current location of 4300 Tacony Street. When it first opened in September 2002 it was spread out over three different sites. In August 2004 they consolidated at their current location and in 2009 an addition was added that provided a 700 seat theatre with an orchestra pit and custom sound system along with lecture rooms. Students are enrolled in Kindergarten through Grade 8. First Philly’s students are chosen by lottery and do come from all areas of our city. Jim says they can identify students living in 33 of the city’s zip codes and 11 buses are used to transport the students to and from school. Theirs is a year round schedule except for the month of July. There is a cafeteria with hot meals and a salad bar. In addition to their focus on literacy, specials like Latin and Music occur every day. There is an art room, too. There are many different “languages” or ways that we communicate. Music is a uniting force among charter schools. There is a 2 day workshop and music festival every year. Those of you familiar with my articles for the Frankford Gazette already know that I am a retired teacher who still thinks of herself as both a teacher and a learner. First Philly’s philosophy is music to my ears and I am sure it will be to many of you as well.
We dropped in on many classes and the students were working in small groups which allows for more individual attention to students’ needs. There is a teacher and an aide in the primary grades. Here again, students were quietly engaged working on their projects which allows for other students to get individual attention. “Inside voices” were being used without constant reminders from the teacher or aide. Trust me, that is not an easy thing to achieve in a classroom. Every class was working in small groups and research has shown that children retain much more when they are actively engaged in learning and collaborating with others. Lockers are located in the classrooms themselves and there are no locks needed on them because in a caring community you respect others’ belongings. On their website, you can see that First Philly partners with many organizations in the city but classes we visited partner with colleges and universities, usually where their teachers matriculated, to identify with others in the learning community. They identify with the school’s particular culture, colors, mascots and become pen pals. Mrs. Stokes, a second grade teacher, went to Millersville University. Her students took a field trip to visit Millersville U and met the President of the University and had lunch in their cafeteria. The alumni of Millersville paid for an overnight trip. Teachers are well-trained and most have advanced degrees. Jim tells us that staff turnover is very low which again benefits students.
We were there through the lunch periods and all was calm with students coming and going about their business. Wherever we went, students greeted us warmly but went right on with their work. The school is somewhat circular which contributes to the feeling of a caring community. Hallways and classrooms are bright and classrooms are arranged in centers – specific subject areas and areas of interest to the students. Word Walls (vocabulary students are learning) have been “built” and all the posted materials relate to literacy, such as the reading process and skills, reminders about editing your writing, etc. Each classroom has a very well-developed library chock full of books for student use. In the primary grades, especially, there is a big emphasis on authors and author studies. There are Promethean boards and projectors for interactive activities to engage students as well as computers.
Mr. Stanton explained that First Philly’s students had achieved Annual Yearly Progress for the past 4 years. When asking him why they have been successful, Mr. Stanton credits it to the Caring School Community where students are taking responsibility for their behavior and learning, Reading/Literacy is the focus of their teachers’ efforts and that creativity is stressed and developed through their open-ended discussions and learning activities. Last year, First Philly celebrated the first graduation of students who started in Kindergarten and graduated from the 8th grade. The students, themselves, celebrate their multicultural diversity and this is reflected in the school and classroom environment. Part of First Philly’s secret, Jim goes on to explain, is that all of the administration, faculty, parents and other stake-holders are focused on educating the children. This includes an Investiture Ceremony for fifth graders where they receive the school blazer as a sign of their progress and each 6th, 7th and 8th grade student has their own laptop to use while in school. Sports play an important role at the school, too. There is a regulation-size basketball court. We visited Mr. Stephen Bolognone’s biology lab which is very well-equipped. There is a garden which leads to the greenhouse, too!
First Philly has a sister school, Tacony Academy Charter School, at 1330 Rhawn Street, opened in 2009, whose focus is on the creative and critical thinking skills needed to create inventions to solve problems. Believing in their model (remember “paradigm”) of education and its obvious success, the founders formed American Paradigm Schools last summer, a nonprofit educational management organization, to offer management and consulting services to other schools and districts here and nationwide to replicate their educational model to help even more children achieve.
I will share with you what impressed me the most. Eighth grade students participate in service projects for their school, neighborhood, community and city as part of their curriculum. The students take complete charge of these projects, it is even their choice of what they will do. Mrs. Clapper, 8th grade teacher, told us that some of the projects have included wrapping gifts for Gaudenzia House and the students presented a program on drug and alchohol awareness. Nine staff from Gaudezia house assisted the students. As the the students raised money for the ASPCA by holding dress down days, students visited the SPCA, then held a school assembly inviting the animal control officer to speak to the students. Students were asked to reflect and share on this event. Mrs. Clapper noted it is that aspect of engaging the community and bringing this collaboration into the school that makes the projects even more meaningful. We can expect much from these graduates.
Needless to say, we enjoyed our visit. First Philly wants their students to enjoy the learning experienceevery day, too! One of the last things Mr. Stanton told us is that their school mascot is an eagle. We hope to see that eagle soar as we can all use more caring and knowledge in our schools and local communities. Enjoy the slideshow!