This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mayor Kenney joined the Meredith Elementary community on the school’s basketball court to celebrate its selection for a prestigious Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education, along with Greenfield Elementary.
The sea of young faces looked back and forth between the stage and the tables stacked high with soft pretzels and water ice. But the children would have to wait until after the speeches.
“I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel – after the Eagles lost – to come here and announce the Blue Ribbon award,” Kenney said, looking out over the crowd of students. “Sometimes being mayor is really hard, but when it comes to things like this, and I see all these beautiful faces — all this diversity — this is what Philadelphia looks like. This is what America looks like. And I’m really proud.”
Mayor Kenney speaks to the students and staff of Meredith Elementary School as they celebrate Meredith’s designation as a Blue Ribbon School.
Established in 1982, the award honors public and private schools where students achieve at high levels or where the achievement gap is narrowing — the gap between demographic groups that normally perform at grade level and those that do not, such as students living above and below the poverty line.
The Department of Education announced the newest cohort of Blue Ribbon Schools on Monday. Greenfield and Meredith are two of 19 schools receiving the award in Pennsylvania this year.
Meredith is a K-8 school with 573 students in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. More than 90 percent of students are reading at or above grade level, and more than 90 percent of 8th graders are accepted into the high school of their choice.
The ceremony was opened by Meredith’s principal, Lauren Overton, a former social studies teacher who is now in her third year as principal. She thanked the school’s teachers and leadership team, and some “very special women who are rock stars in my life: my mom, my grandmother, and my partner Tiff.”
Overton also stressed the importance of the work done by past principals who attended the ceremony. The whole community cheered for former principal Stuart Cooperstein and especially loud for Cynthia Farlino, who was principal just before Overton.
“This award affirms the hard work of our students, teachers, support staff, families and surrounding community,” Overton said. “Together, we have worked tirelessly to create a safe and welcoming school where students master challenging and engaging content while taking risks and developing a love of learning. At Meredith, we are committed to developing the next generation of leaders.”
Another speaker was one of those leaders, 8th grader Denise Sanchez, whose video about her Mexican heritage won first place at the School District’s technology fair.
“At my nine years here at Meredith, I have learned that knowledge is powerful,” Sanchez said. “My teachers have encouraged me to formulate my own opinions and to stand up for what I believe in.”
Eighth grader Denise Sanchez speaks to Meredith Elementary students and staff during the Blue Ribbon award celebration.
“It was an experience I will never forget,” Sanchez said of making the video about her family’s heritage and sharing it with her classmates. “The relationships I made here are ones I will cherish throughout my entire life. This is the kind of place you don’t want to leave.”
Superintendent William Hite congratulated the students and staff.
“I was happy when you all acknowledged your former principals here, because that’s when this work was begun,” Hite said. “Meredith is, and continues to be, a place that helps children become exceptional students.”
School board members Lee Huang, Mallory Fix Lopez, and Julia Danzy also attended the ceremony, along with Board President Joyce Wilkerson.
“You are absolutely beautiful,” said Danzy to the crowd of students, whom she complimented on their patience with the ceremony. “We, the school board, are working hard to do as the mayor said, to not just let it be two schools that are Blue Ribbons, but someday we will be going to school after school to celebrate the same thing.”
Children in the crowd laughed as Mayor Kenney made faces at them from the stage.
After a three-second countdown, the students cheered to booms from confetti cannons as the sheet fell from a massive banner congratulating the school on its award.
Some students tossed confetti at each other, while others rushed for the water ice and soft pretzels.
Rita’s Italian Ice donated half the cost of several giant tubs of water ice, and the Home & School Association paid for the rest and bought boxes of M-shaped soft pretzels. Parent volunteers staffed the long tables piled high with treats.
Principal Overton’s undergraduate degree is in drama. She said she fell in love with teaching when she taught an elective on playwriting. so she returned to school for a teaching degree. After moving from one school to another, she found Meredith, where she taught social studies for three years before becoming principal, taking over from Farlino. Overton earned her principal’s certification at the University of Pennsylvania.
She said the initiatives she put into place were influenced by her time in the classroom.
“We’ve shifted toward not just using a workshop model in literacy, but also in other areas such as math, science, and social studies, so that students have opportunities to use different modalities to access content,” Overton said. “The other thing is the advent of a Social Health class for middle schoolers.”
She said the class combines health with modern life skills.
“It covers things from when it’s OK to use a cell phone in school, how to protect yourself and behave responsibly online, to how much sleep teenagers need,” she said. “It explores things like race, class, gender, and identity. We also embedded a social justice framework into our social studies curriculum to ensure that students from kindergarten on up get to explore some of the bigger problems in our world with the guidance of their teachers.”
Principal Lauren Overton speaks to students and staff at Meredith’s celebration.
By far the school’s biggest challenge has been overcrowding, according to Overton. Meredith’s reputation has caused it to become one of the city’s most sought-after elementary schools.
“There’s a lot of children. We’re an overcrowded school, and so that looks creative in a lot of ways,” Overton said, adding that the school’s very active parent-volunteer community has been a huge help. “We have many parents who help by volunteering, ensuring every kid gets access to the attention that they need.”
Meredith and Greenfield are the fourth and fifth Philadelphia public schools to receive the National Blue Ribbon since Hite took over in 2012. The others are Hill Freedman World Academy in 2014, Penn Alexander Elementary School in 2016, and McCall Elementary School in 2017.
“We’re very proud of the students and staff at Greenfield and Meredith for earning this national distinction and exemplifying the progress that Philadelphia schools are making throughout the city,” Kenney said. “Our city’s future depends on whether students have meaningful opportunities to learn and grow. I look forward to continuing our work with the School District and new school board to accelerate Philadelphia schools’ recent progress and ensure that there are quality schools in every neighborhood.”
Greenfield is a K-8 school in Center City that serves 620 students. It was also designated a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency in 2013.
“This achievement would have not been possible without the hard work of our teachers, staff, students, and the amazing support of our parents and the Greenfield community as a whole,” said Greenfield principal Dan Lazar. “We are honored to be a Blue Ribbon School and look forward to continuing to provide a vibrant learning environment for students.”
Students at Greenfield have access to visual and vocal arts classes, and a thriving afterschool program puts on two performances each year. The school also prides itself on instruction in computer coding and robotics.
“The School District of Philadelphia congratulates both Greenfield and Meredith Schools on this outstanding achievement,” said Hite. “Principals Dr. Dan Lazar and Lauren Overton have maintained high academic standards and have created supportive school environments so our students can learn and grow. On behalf of the District, I applaud all students, teachers, families, and partners who made these awards possible.”
Keeping an entire school of children quiet and behaved while they sit on a basketball court is not easy, but Meredith’s staff were ready for it:
A teacher at Meredith wades through the crowd of students, keeping everyone on their best behavior as they wait for the ceremony to start.
Meredith students await the beginning of the ceremony.