This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Last time, Peak Johnson reflected on his experience at Douglass Elementary school. This week Johnsons visits a private school a few blocks away that is based out of Project H.O.M.E.’s Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs.
It’s Wednesday morning, and the students of Beth Vaccaro’s 5th grade class arrive after eating breakfast with their peers.
“Where is my teacher?” asks one student, who notices me sitting in a corner, scribbling down notes. “Good morning,” he quickly adds.
Vaccaro enters the classroom after discussing something quickly with another teacher. The students greet her happily as she enters, one student even hands her a candy cane.
“Thank you,” Vaccaro replies, smiling. “I’ll always accept a piece of candy.”
As the students of the Community Partnership School (CPS) begin to settle down into their seats, Vaccaro begins counting down from 25. The students are about to begin their "brain breakfast," an early start on vocabulary; today’s word: gallery.
CPS, a co-educational independent elementary school in North Central Philadelphia, offers qualified children from the area a rigorous and well-rounded education that prepares them for lifelong success.
Prior to its opening, Germantown Academy had been contemplating the idea of CPS for seven years and had been looking to either build an entire new building or to find space that could be shared. Germantown Academy then approached Sister Mary Scullion, Co-Director of homelessness organization Project H.O.M.E., to see if there was a way of partnering to utilize the space at the then new Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs.
Soon an ideal relationship formed. Now in its fifth year, CPS has 85 students; 12 per grade, with a teacher ratio of six to one.
The annual cost per student at CPS is $17,500 while the average financial aid package per student is $16,500. CPS does not require a set tuition. Families pay what they can, according to their own finances.
I visited CPS once in 2006 when it first opened its doors to a total of 34 newly enrolled students. At that time the school held only pre-K through first grade classes, but has since added a grade a year. Vaccaro’s 5th grade class is the newest addition.
“She’s very nice,” says 5h grader, Kendi Butts. “It’s good here because most kids my age are not getting such a good education. I think this school helps kids like me get one.”
Kendi was one of the students who I had the privilege of interviewing in 2006 for the North Philly Metropolis community newspaper, when she was in first grade. She laughed and giggled then, but this time she seemed more serious, more poised.
“I think I got into teaching because of two reasons,” begins Vaccaro. “I loved school, it was always a happy place for me. But also when I first began teaching at city schools I had began noticing the inequality between them and my own.”
From watching the students it is very easy to see that they are eager to learn. They’re engaged in what Vaccaro is presently teaching, different motivations of the characters in a story they just read, The 100 Dresses. They’re wide-awake, excited to hear from each other.
In addition to math, social studies, science, and literacy, students of CPS participate in music, Spanish, physical education, technology, and art.
“I really like algebra,” says Ishara Hall.
“Yeah,” agrees Nashay Crosby-Bey, “We were taught geometry in the fourth grade so that we would be ready for it.”
Like Kendi, both girls will be part of the first graduating class next June. I was nothing but surprised when finding out that they were being taught algebra and geometry at such a young age. I joked with them that I had not learned geometry until the 11th grade and algebra the year after. They’re way ahead of me.
The morning progresses and it is soon math time, the students begin working with protractors for the first time today to answer a few problems.
“It won’t hurt me if you don’t get them all correct,” Vacarro says as she walks around her students. “What will hurt me is if you don’t try.”
“Done,” yells one student, followed by another and then another.
Soon the entire class is finished and after going over the problems together as a whole they are off to recess. Once they return it’s time for a quick activity using geoboards while Vaccaro gathers some students to further explain the proper use of a protractor.
“She’s a little hard on us, but I like that because it helps us push forward.” Adds Ishara.
Though I was not able to stay the entire day, I was able to view one last activity that the students had been working on, silkscreen flags. Vaccaro’s students were able to visit the Fabric Workshop and Museum where they learned to print their own silkscreen designs and created their own "fundreds" for the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, a nationwide drawing initiative with the goal of collecting three million artistic interpretations of one hundred dollar bills.
Upon graduating, the students will be able to take their flags home, commemorating the special occasion.
Watching Viccaro’s class reminded me much of my days at Douglass, the interactions between her and the students especially. The students know that she cares about them, just as I knew my teachers cared about me, and this is what I think I will take most from my visit. Until last year, when I visited both Shallcross Academy and Daniel Boone, it had been a while since witnessing students who actually wanted to learn and have some form of respectable relationship with their teachers and vice versa.
Throughout my days of high school and middle school, there really was not that much of a relationship with teachers. Some of us just did not want to learn because we had assumed we knew everything. The teachers, sometimes would slap a worksheet down on our desks and call it a day.
CPS offers a lot in a such a small community where 66 percent of adults lack a high school diploma and 96 lack a college degree.
The teachers, like Viccaro, guide their children through a learning process that allows them to pursue their individual talents and interests and this is something I truly feel that other schools should follow.