Southwark: a South Philly Community School Shows How to Make Progress

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TEACHER Maestra Medina leads a 2nd-grade dual-immersion class – in Spanish and English – at Southwark Elementary School.

BY TONY WEST
Southwark Elementary School, one of the pioneers in the Community Schools program that was a trademark initiative of Mayor Jim Kenney’s first year in office, was commended earlier this year for its academic progress in the 2016-17 school year, as measured by the district-wide School Progress Report. It stood out among neighborhood schools in South Philadelphia.

(IN THE PRINCIPAL’S office, L-R, were Community Schools Coordinator Beth Dougherty, Principal Andrew Lukov and Teacher Maestra Medina.

Southwark School saw the percentage of K-2 students reading at grade level rise from 30% to 50%, an increase of 20 percentage points.

In the SPR, all public elementary schools are scored for each of three “domains” (performance areas): Achievement, Progress and Climate. A school’s overall and domain scores are rated in four tiers: Intervene (lowest), Watch, Reinforce and Model (highest).

Southwark moved up a tier overall from 37% (Intervene) to 54% (Reinforce). In the Progress domain, it jumped from 37% to 84% (Model).

And it did so without either special funding from the system or an abundance of resources in the community. Southwark’s immediate neighborhood in South Philadelphia, roughly between 6th and 12th, Tasker and Ritner Streets, is highly diverse in ethnicity and class, but most of its students face social challenges. The poverty rate among their families is high and more than 60% of the students are not native English speakers.

SOUTHWARK Principal Andrew Lukov shows off one of his proudest acquisitions: a $100,000 piano lab funded by the International Music Foundation. It is just one way this “ordinary” neighborhood school punches above its weight.

A visit to the school this spring made clear some ingredients of its success: drive, esprit de corps and creativity.

Principal Andrew Lukov is in his fifth year at Southwark. He had already embraced the home connection that is at the heart of the community-school concept.

In community schools, according to the Mayor’s Office of Education, “a full-time coordinator works with the entire school community – students, parents, teachers, administrators, service providers, and neighbors – to identify the community’s most pressing needs, such as expanded medical services, after-school programming, and job training. The coordinator then works with service providers and City agencies to bring these resources directly into the school. Community schools become neighborhood centers, improving access to programs and services for students, families, and neighbors.”

TEACHER Jason Morroni administers Southwark’s successful literacy program to his class of 2nd-graders.

“Parental engagement is the key,” said Lukov. “We listen to them, we build a trust. When a family has school-related issues, they can be filled with anxiety, anger and resentment. If a parent needs to come in and see me, I’ll do it right away.”

The school sees this interaction as a two-way street. Community Schools Coordinator Beth Dougherty said, “You can use the school as a way to bring programs and resources to the community.”

There is evident word of mouth in the community about Southwark School. “We have 840 students now,” said Lukov. Four years ago, we were at 525.” Its strong services for immigrants have made it a magnet for them; 45% of its students are English-language learners.

LONDON JORDAN proudly shows off the plant she has been growing from a seed.

In a 1st-grade literacy class, teacher Jason Morroni conducted a highly structured literacy lesson of the sort that has boosted reading levels. Desks were laid out in small groupings, in ways that fostered small teamwork and relaxed concentration. With three years of student teaching under his belt, Morroni has been on regular faculty for a half-year at Southwark and lives in the neighborhood.

“It’s a wonderful public school,” said Morroni. “It has everything I look for as an educator: diversity, good teacher support and education, a pool of great teachers.”

Lukov works hard to develop that pool. Last year, he interviewed 40 applicants to fill three faculty openings. “I look for passion and commitment,” he said.

Southwark makes an ideal site for an innovative K-3 dual-immersion program. One classroom proceeds together from grade to grade, starting off with instruction 90% in Spanish, 10% in English. Gradually, the English component is increased, to 20% by the 2nd grade. By its end in 5th grade, the instructional-language ratio will be 50/50.

PARENT Mollie Michel says her children’s teachers are excellent.

What makes this program stand out is that enrollment is restricted to half native Spanish-speakers and half native English-speakers. Many of the hispanophones are from Mexico, said teacher Maestra Medina.

But the program is sought after by many anglophones, among them Mollie Michel, who moved to Philadelphia from Brooklyn three years ago and now serves on the School Advisory Council. “I regret that I am not bilingual,” she said. She has a 1st-grader and a 3rd-grader in the program.

Although most classrooms are in English only (classes range from three to five in various grades), Medina argued the bilingual program may be one factor in boosting the school’s overall improvement in early-grade literacy.

ARTS TEACHER Aaron Kalinay works to connect the school’s multicultural students with the diversity of artistic expressions from around the world.

Medina, a teacher for 19 years who is in her second year at Southwark, explained that bilingualism fosters overall literacy. “Research shows us that when talking standardized assessments, our biliterate students score higher,” she said.

Lukov has invested great energy in music, dance and art. The arts can help establish a “common language” for children with different levels of proficiency in English.

A feather in his cap is the $100,000 “Keys of Inspiration” grant he wangled from the International Music Foundation founded by renowned pianist Lang Lang. It has borne fruit in a piano laboratory unparalleled in a neighborhood public school, and one that would be the envy of a well-endowed private school.

Art teacher Aaron Kalinay is in his fifth year at Southwark, having served previously at Reynolds Elementary School in North Central Philadelphia. The main difference at Southwark is its diversity, he said. The student body is roughly one-third Asian American, one-third Latino, and equal parts African American and white. “Every student gets art once or twice a week,” he affirmed.

Kalinay has adapted the inherent multiculturalism of the neighborhood to his curriculum. Art projects on his classroom walls show an ever-moving focus on the artistic heritage of various nations around the world. We’re all in this together, no matter where you’re from, is the unspoken message.

CHINESE-STYLE paintings hang from one wall of the art classroom; a painting of the Eiffel Tower in Paris adorns another.

A good principal is in love with his plant the way a good captain is in love with his ship. Lukov adores the massive, granite-faced architecture of his century-old building, designed by architect Henry DeCourcey Richards, which is on the National register of Historic Places. “When I began my tenure as principal of Southwark, I immediately recognized the undiscovered treasure that we have in our staff, families, and very-diverse community. Bringing these groups together and aligning them to our school mission to make our students successful has been my goal,” wrote Lukov in a mission statement for the school.

“We’re excited to support the well-being of Southwark students and support their learning.” said Community Schools Director Susan Gobreski. “We’re proud to partner with the caring and dedicated school staff of Southwark, and committed to supporting the students, parents, and surrounding community through expanded resources and programs.”

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