This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley Jr.
It may be doomsday for the Philadelphia School District, but parents at one Southwest Philadelphia school say they’re ready to roll with the punches.
Even if they’re not sure just how heavy those punches will be, or where and when they’ll land.
“My son’s worried about the sports – is that going to happen?” said Roger King, who’s sending two children and a grandchild to Tilden Middle School. “I told him, it’s all about how the money goes. If there’s no money, no sports, no arts.”
Kim Jackson has two daughters who are, likewise, new to the school. They love gymnastics, but will there be a team to join? “I’m not even sure yet – it’s a new year for all of us,” Jackson said.
On a bright, clear morning, the scene outside Tilden, located at 66th Street and Elmwood Avenue near Bartram High, was the picture of first-day optimism. A cluster of young City Year workers chanted “good morning!” to students and parents as they streamed through the doors to register and meet their new classmates. Principal Brian Johnson bustled around the sun-dappled sidewalk, greeting his giggling, gossiping charges with a handshake and an invitation: “Welcome to Tilden. Come on inside.”
But the school faces a challenging year of adjustments. With the closing of nearby Pepper Middle School, Tilden will expand from about 375 students to an estimated 753. It has added a grade (it’s now 5-8 instead of 6-8) and lost respected principal Jonas Crenshaw. Johnson, his replacement (who politely declined an interview request as he wrangled his boisterous students into the building), will depend on a staff that includes just one counselor, no assistant principal, and a nurse three days a week.
The leadership change alone is a big blow, said Keith Moss, whose 8th-grade daughter was at Tilden last year. The school had long had a bad reputation, Moss said, but “everything changed” when Crenshaw arrived in 2011. Crime and violence — including what had been almost daily scuffles in the local park — went down, he said, and school spirit got a much-needed boost.
Whether that will continue under Johnson is anyone’s guess, Moss said. “They’ve got a whole new principal in there. A whole new system,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of things here for the kids. Last year they cut the music program. And with these schools closing, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
“It’s going to be rough,” he said.
Many of the parents outside Tilden on Monday said they knew very little about the school or what it will offer this year. King’s children were in Pepper Middle (now closed) and Patterson Elementary last year.
“Everybody’s new here – except me,” King laughed. “I was here 30 years ago. I was bused to the school when it was half White.”
Jackson said she doesn’t know much about her daughters’ new school. “I’m worried – I’m trying to keep them safe, and on the right path,” she said. “So I’m going try it out this year, and see how far we go. I heard this school wasn’t good, so I’m not too happy about that.”
But for all the concerns, hopeful attitudes were not hard to find.
“I’ll be able to handle it. I believe I’m able to adjust quickly to things,” said Mike Dee, an 8th grader and former homeschooler who decided that the classroom experience would be more challenging and interesting.
The teachers he met at orientation a few weeks ago “seem pretty enthusiastic,” he said. “But it’s their first appearance. I’d like to get to know them more to see how they are to the students, if they really care.”
“I feel good,” said Abbas Leminu-Yusuf, an immigrant from Ghana whose son starts at Tilden this year. He praised the orientation meetings and said his son feels welcome and ready to learn.
“They took us around and showed us the auditorium, the dining room,” Leminu-Yusuf said. “Something I want him to learn is the language. I want him to be more concentrated and focused on English. We speak about three different languages at home, including Arabic and Yoruba. But his friends mostly speak English. Maybe he can be a bilingual secretary!”
Amir Woodson, a 5th grader who laughingly called himself “the Truth Seeker,” says he’s looking forward to the school year. His formula for success at Tilden: “Be nice, don’t start any trouble, and you’ll be fine. Always stay focused. Always stay calm. Don’t go with the wrong crew.”
“That’s right,” said Amir’s smiling grandmother, Shirley Woodson, as the young man recited his mantra. But she has her worries too. “I’m kind of skeptical because of the bullying and fights that go on over here,” she said. “I’m just afraid for him. He’s sort of timid. And they’ve taken a lot of the security out of the building.”
Safety concerns like Woodson’s were common, and parents said that given the school’s uncertain situation, they’ll be counting on their kids to figure out how to steer clear of bad influences.
“To be frank, I was told about this – fighting, bullying,” said Leminu-Yusuf. “I keep on advising [my son] to be with the good, and stay away from trouble.”
Keith Moss tells his daughter the same thing: “She does get picked on, like all kids do, but I’ve already told her how to address that,” Moss said. “First let somebody in authority know. If that person’s not listening, you go to the next one up the line.”
Roger King said he believes Tilden and other schools will be safe enough, even with all the budget and staff cuts. But he followed the summer’s headlines with concern, and he knows it won’t be an easy year.
“It’s more than one person’s problem. And it’s more than one person’s fault,” King said. “Twenty years, things have been wasted here and there, till you got to this point. They can’t solve it right away. It’s got to be over some years. So for now, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got.”