Thursday, May 26, 2005

Selecting Teachers

I figure Nick Nolte has played the same down & out character in about 17 movies, always to find redemption before the closing credits. So I was not surprised, at the end of his 1984 entry, Teachers, that he stuck to his principles and beat the union to keep his job in a troubled urban high school. (I agree that the only valuable part of the movie was the 38 Special song in the soundtrack, but isn't that off-topic?)

The scene that always stuck with me is his pleading with the school's union representative over his unorthodox methods, and realizing that his job was on the line as a bargaining chip for the union's agenda of getting an additional 3 minutes of lunch time in the daily schedule. Yeah, it's just Hollywood, but it's a reminder - if a bit melodramatic - that while unions play an important role in American labor, their logic can get a bit gooey.

And that's where we come to teacher selection. In Philadelphia, as in most districts as I understand it, the teacher's union decides which schools teachers go into, based on seniority. "Dear Teacher Jones, you've had a long and thoroughly mediocre career and have managed to keep your job in spite of utter lack of proof of your ability to cultivate excellence among your students, so we are going to reward you by sending you to a nice, comfortable school to coast toward retirement." No thanks.

To make sure it gets good teachers, not merely whomever the union decides to move here, or whomever some other school wants to dump, Henry, along with a handful of other schools in the district, has opted for the past several years for "site-based selection" of new teachers. Each year, a school's teachers have to agree to participate in the site-based selection process. If the teachers don't agree, the union rules.

This process gives local input - school and parent input - into which teachers come into our school. As a school with a great reputation throughout the district, plenty of teachers want in. The Principal/Teacher/Parent team on the selection committee makes sure the new teachers who come into our school are a good fit for our school culture, with high expectations for themselves and their students.

I've been given the opportunity to participate in the school's site selection committee. Interviews are scheduled over the next couple weeks, and I can't wait to meet & talk to the teachers who want to come to Henry. I won't disclose any decisions (that's the school's job) or specific discussion, which could compromise the process.

But if that Nick Nolte teacher-character shows up, I'm voting for him!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Cafe' Broadway, June 2 & 3

From Ulrike Shapiro:

Our Musical Revue: CAFE' BROADWAY, is in it's last few days of rehearsal. It is great: yesterday afternoon there were about 50 kids on stage, singing: "Can you feel the love tonight". WOW!

I hope all of you will come either on Thursday, June 2 (7pm), or Friday June 3 (7pm) to hear the amazing talents of our children!

Ticket pre-order forms will be sent home in the communication folders this week. Only pre-ordered tickets will enter the show raffle! So buy your tickets NOW! (Tickets will also be available at the door.)

If you have a child in grades 1 - 5, who is not already participating and would like to, please email Ulrike Shapiro for a release form to return, Wednesday, May 25. (Third graders will participate in the Thursday performance only, due to their NY trip, Friday). Please also indicate if you can chaperone. This is a VERY important job, and we need you!

It is not too late to send in your ad for the program book! Email Kevin Peter for the form. Please return it with payment, to your teacher, by Friday, May 27.

Ms.Paulino, Ms. Mahoney and I enjoy working with your children, and we are looking forward to seeing you at CAFE' BROADWAY!

Powerful Parental Participation

If you google Margaret Meade's famous quote about not underestimating the power of a small group to change the world, you learn that either (a) she said it about 14,519 different times and used different wording each time, or (b) the quote has such rallying power for small groups trying to do good work, that folklore has morphed it into a fluid description of the 80/20 rule we all see in our working lives: most of the work is done by a small group of people.

Henry's Home and School Association feels like a Meade illustration in action. At the group's meeting last week, we got a report of its activities this school year. An abbreviated list of accomplishments includes:

  • Worked with the school to garner $350,000 from the district's Campus Parks program to redesign the upper school yard. The project, currently slated for demolition/construction in Summer 2006, will level the slope, install plantings and benches, and make the area a much more inviting and user-friendly space.
  • Worked with the Community Design Collaborative, a group of Architects working to improve public spaces, to explore ways of improving the lunchroom. The lunchroom is really a multi-purpose room, a combination gym/lunchroom that works better as a gym than a soothing place for midday repast. The lunchroom has been a concern and complaint of parents, so the results of the CDC input should be a big help.
  • Served as the spearhead and point of contact for staff from organizations like the Morris Arboretum, Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, and school neighbors with real expertise who want to help improve the school environment.
  • Provided support - like breakfasts and snacks - to the students during the testing periods for the PSSA and Terra Nova tests. Apparently, the research shows that sugar (or at least a decent breakfast) actually does help kids in testing.
  • Coordinated volunteers from the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which brings retired neighborhood residents into the school, weekly, to do one-on-one tutoring with students referred by their classroom teachers.
  • Produced 2 fundraisers that netted about $20,000, which H&S basically "grants" to the school for needed items that aren't in the school budget, for example: instruments for the music program, a new laminator for the teachers, test prep books to help students and families prepare for the PSSA and Terra Nova tests, and field trip fees for students whose families can't pay the nominal costs.

One mother involved in H&S worked with the music teacher and Principal to write a proposal to a local foundation, resulting in a planning grant for the music program. That grant came through this year, and as part of the planning project, every family received a questionnaire about music and performing arts. Survey results went into the just-submitted proposal to the same foundation for a multi-year project to integrate music into the core curriculum, with a musician-in-residence working with classroom teachers. We should hear from the foundation in June.

Yes, a small group of folks work on these big accomplishments. At last week's meeting, 10 parents, representing Henry's diverse community, attended, along with the Principal. As a snapshot of parental involvement, attendance is not quite overwhelming. On the other hand, this was the night before the annual spring concert, there really weren't any critical items on the agenda, and the level of parental-participation goes way beyond meeting attendance. For example:

  • There's a father who's a prof at a local university who, for the past two years, has arranged for student teachers throughout the school. This cuts in half the student-to-adult ratio in many classrooms. In my son's class, the 22 kids enjoyed a 11:1 ratio most of the year.
  • There's a mother who coordinates the recycling project for used printer cartridges and cell phones, raising more funds for H&S to provide the school.
  • There are the many parents who go along on field trips to the Zoo, Kimmel Center, Art Museum, and so many other great educational and cultural venues throughout the area.
  • There are the parents working with the students on the annual school play: the producer/director who was recently in the Production department at the Philadelphia Opera Company, and more recently in one of the company's operas (OK, she was at the meeting); the musicians and sound technician.
  • The parents who volunteered to run, and just plane help out at the book fairs/fundraisers, candy/stuff fundraisers.
  • The parents and grandparents - someone just about everyday - who go into the classrooms to talk to students about their careers, teach science lessons, read to kindergarten, and teach students how to play Chess.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Home and School Meeting Tonight, 7PM

Home and School meetings are in the School Libary. Enter through the main doors on Carpenter Lane, then go downstairs into the basement.


  1. Musical, June 2 & 3: Volunteers needed – Food, advertisements, Ad Book, Ticket sales
  2. Elections
  3. Book Fair – Volunteers Needed May 23 - 27
  4. Clean up day
  5. Graduation
  6. Last day of school - treats
  7. Summer Activities ?

The Drop-Off

Assembling in the upper school yard. (photo KP) Posted by Hello

You know that scene in Finding Nemo when Marlin takes Nemo to school for the first time? Not the part about the Drop-Off, forget that. But the part where they show up to drop off Nemo, and all the parent fish are hanging out talking as their kids go over to join the school. That part.

Taking a kid to Henry in the morning is like that. Lots of kids streaming into the schoolyard from all corners. Some kids are jumping Double Dutch by the stairs, others are racing by the fence, others are dutifully anticipating the call to assemble. And parents scattered throughout - some are spending a final few minutes with their kids, some are talking to the groups of kids that inevitably gather around them, while others are congregating in small groups to talk about a run to Infusion for a hit of caffeine on the way to work.

Throughout the year, the entire school starts off the day by assembling in the school yard on nice-weather days. Starting the day with everyone there - kids, teachers, parents, little bothers and sisters - helps create a sense of community. I meet the kids that my son talks about. I meet many of their parents - some I see most mornings, some every once in a while.

Dropping off our son at school is an immersion in community. I get hugs from Shelby, high-fives from Rondell, and the morning report on who's being unfair to Sean - all while my son is running foot races with kids ranging from kindergarten to fourth graders. I talk to one father about the bike ride coming up this weekend, to another about how the sound system makes the morning announcements sound like they're coming from an adult in Peanuts, and to a mom about the opera she's in at the moment.

After the teachers take the kids inside to start class, there are usually a couple of huddles of parents who don't have to rush off to work, talking about the upcoming fundraiser, the PSSA or Terra Nova tests or results, the Home & School meeting, or the school play. I am one of the parents who usually does have to rush off to work, but I often get a chance to say Hi and catch any important bullet points or get volunteered to write a letter to raise funds for the play.

Also after the kids go inside, the Principal is often out there long enough to talk about a problem or an opportunity. Plenty of times, I've caught her for a minute, and I feel I'm more rushed than she is.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Knowing Henry: Here's the Point

C.W. Henry School, Mt. Airy, Philadelphia (photo KP) Posted by Hello

Knowing Henry contains the personal observations of Kevin Peter, a Henry school parent, about the school environment, activities, students, families, faculty and staff.

Why blog Henry?
In starting to research Henry, we found plenty of information...scattered around local papers, state agencies, and local mythology. But we found no accessible collection of the kind of information we really wanted and needed: What's Henry really like for the kids who go there?

I believe most neighborhood families who have the ability to choose which school their children attend, write-off Henry without consideration. What my family has learned alongside many others with the ability to choose, is that Henry is a good school where kids are excelling and where the faculty and staff are sincerely interested in the students. We have found, once families take a serious look at Henry and compare it to other schools, many choose Henry.