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Maria Pandolfi in her classroom.

Maria Pandolfi in her classroom. Photo by Sam Haut

Sam Haut

Art teacher at Juvenile Justice Center offers her students a role model

Despite dyslexia, Maria Pandolfi has thrived in the profession, making a difference for students awaiting adjudication.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This profile of an outstanding Philadelphia teacher is made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation. To read another one of these profiles, click here.

Maria Pandolfi is a teacher at the Juvenile Justice Services Center, where she helps her students create pieces of art they can be proud of.

Pandolfi, or Panda as those at Juvenile Justice call her, has been working at the school for the last two years and in education for the last 27. She has dyslexia and ADHD, which made it hard for her to succeed in school growing up, but became less of a worry when she became an art teacher.

Juvenile Justice is a school that holds youths age 13 to 21 who are waiting for their cases to be heard by a judge. This means that the students Pandolfi teaches are only there for a maximum of six months, and some students are there just a few days. This makes it hard to connect with the kids because of the short time that they spend together.

Despite this, Pandolfi still manages to make a deep connection with her students, and most of them greatly enjoy her class. One parent even asked her whether their child could come back to Juvenile Justice just to take classes there.

Pandolfi said that she has worked at many different schools, but that she feels the most at home at Juvenile Justice.

“I never thought I’d get a tattoo for my school. It says ‘Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center, always in my heart,’” Pandolfi said. “We’ll have a new kid, and he’ll say ‘Ms. Panda, you have a tattoo for PJJSCS? What, lady, you crazy – she must really love us.’ I do love them, they’re my babies. I don’t have my own kids; they’re my kids.”

Pandolfi sees herself as an activist for the environment and human and animal rights. She also does what she can to address the school-to-prison pipeline.

She helps the students to express themselves through art, and despite having little experience, they still make interesting pieces. Pandolfi said many of her students struggle with failure, so she makes them see that they can succeed.

“I had this one kid – every line he would make, I would have to be right there,” Pandolfi said. “They’re so scared of making a mistake. ‘Ms. Panda, come here, is this OK? Ms. Panda, is this OK?’ So I said to him, ‘Give me your hands.’ And I held his hands and said, ‘Now look at me. I’m really proud of you. You are so smart, you’re doing such great work,’ and I do mean it. You should have seen this kid’s face.

“They are babies, and nobody babied them. When I said that and I held his hand, his face lit up. You tell them that they did a good job, and it just changes them.”

Joy Shoaltz-Campbell, an English and history teacher at Juvenile Justice, said that it’s hard for the students to permanently leave the school, partly because they like it, but mostly due to the ease of returning to a criminal lifestyle.

“It takes them almost five to six months to get their identification, and so, in the meantime, they run into some of their old friends who say ‘hey, over here,’ then they can make $100 in five minutes, and then they’re back,” Shoaltz-Campbell said.

The real world is hard for them. “We tell them that ‘we want you to move forward,’ [but] this is the only place that makes them feel like they’re needed or wanted or that they can do it. So we’re family to them, and everyone looks forward to Panda’s class.”

Pandolfi’s helpful spirit has led her to assist young people overseas, as well. She said that over the last 15 years, she has been going to Jamaica to help bring needed supplies to the poor population there.

“I went there on vacation, saw how poor people were, so I just started to collect school supplies,” Pandolfi said. “I would go to the art ed conference. I’d get all these donations, I’d bring them to the local schools, and I would do art lessons in the school.”

One thing led to another.

“Then I start working with another person. We did this thing called ‘tropic relief,’ and we would bring hospital supplies and school supplies. And then I found out how gay people are treated there, so I helped bring LGBTQ [awareness] here.”

Pandolfi said that despite her own challenges, she is still able to succeed and she wants to makes sure her students know that, too.

“I was a finalist for Pennsylvania teacher of the year. I was one of 12,” Pandolfi said. “I got Humane Educator of the Year from the American Anti-Vivisection Society. I just had Lindback. I got a lot of awards.

“I don’t want to show off. I want the kids to see that this is what a learning-disabled person can do, a person who couldn’t read. I had a speech problem; nobody could understand me. Look what I did, and you can do it, too.”

Sam Haut, a student at Ithaca College, is an intern at the Notebook.