This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On the first day of school, Mayor Kenney stood outside Muñoz-Marin Elementary School to raise and ring his school bell amid a crowd of merry bell-shakers. He drew laughs as he recalled his own childhood experience of lining up for school under the gaze of Sister Mary Amadeus, who rang a giant bell to start the day at the now-closed Lady of Mount Carmel School in South Philadelphia.
Kenney was joined by Superintendent William Hite and several members of the new Board of Education, all smiles and excitement as they celebrated the start of a new school year. The mayor was especially happy to start the first school year under a locally controlled school board after the dissolution of the School Reform Commission (SRC).
“Now that the schools are under local control, the city and School District can work more closely to strategically align services and resources that support students and their families,” Kenney said. “Together, we will ensure that there are quality schools in every neighborhood.”
Coordinating city services with schools is part of the mayor’s community schools initiative, and Board President Joyce Wilkerson, who attended the ceremony, has said she shares this goal for the new school board.
“This is the most important economic investment we can make in our city,” Kenney said. “It’s not Amazon, it’s not retaining businesses, it’s training our young people to take the jobs of the next 10, 20 or 30 years. If we don’t do it, we’re going to be mired in poverty forever. And if we do it, we’ll keep families from moving out of our city.”
Wilkerson was enthusiastic about the school board’s upcoming work.
“After 16 years under state control, we’re finally back to local control,” said Wilkerson, who also served as chair of the SRC. “The citizens of Philadelphia are taking responsibility for educating the kids of Philadelphia. This Board of Education had made a commitment to involving all of you. We’re going to operate with new formats, have board meetings all over the city, with committees that engage the public.”
Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson speaks outside Muñoz-Marin Elementary School in Kensington to celebrate the start of a new school year.
The event was held at Muñoz-Marin to highlight the school’s progress in recent years — both academically and in upgrading the 21-year-old building and making it safe.
“The progress here at Muñoz-Marin is extremely exciting,” Hite said. “Over the last year, this school has jumped an impressive 63 percentage points on its [District] report in academic progress.”
He shared other good news as well. “More students are reading on grade level, our graduation rate is the highest it’s been in a decade, and we’re finally back to local control,” Hite said. “These accomplishments are the result of a lot of hard work from our teachers, support staff, and administrators.”
But Muñoz-Marin’s selection was also significant because it was the site of a widespread mold outbreak last summer. The problem was caused by a malfunctioning air conditioning system, which was replaced this summer, along with the ventilation system, as part of the District’s latest project to repair areas of school buildings with the highest need.
“We know and we accept that there is still work to be done,” Hite said. “There has been a lot of talk lately about the condition of our facilities and the challenges we face when our average school building in the District is 70 years old.”
Hite reported that so far, the project has repaired over 22,000 square feet of damaged paint and plaster across 168 classrooms and completed asbestos abatement at seven schools. At the same time, the District “modernized” 163 kindergarten through 3rd grade classrooms across 11 schools “to help boost our early literacy numbers.”
Principal Ariel Lajara is starting his third year at Muñoz-Marin.
Muñoz-Marin principal Ariel Lajara shows off the school’s newly renovated library.
“By the time kids came back to school last year, the building was ready for them. However, there was still a lot of work that needed to be done,” Lajara said. “So I’m beyond grateful that we received a new HVAC unit to avoid the problem happening again.”
The HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) project was part of a $5.6 million upgrade to those systems in both Muñoz-Marin and J.B. Kelly Elementary, which also saw a mold outbreak last summer. Across the two schools, the District also replaced 123 vents and 18 air handling units.
Hite also used the ceremony to congratulate 7th-grade honor roll student Keili Hernandez-Rogel and her parents. She was named one of the District’s Attendance Heroes for her “impressive” attendance record.
Keili Hernandez-Rogel, a 7th-grade honor roll student at Muñoz-Marin who was named an Attendance Hero, gives an interview to 6ABC News.
This was the first time in recent memory that students started school before Labor Day. The goal was to increase the number of full weeks of school and to maximize instructional time before assessments. The school year also will end earlier than usual, on June 4. It is the first year that kindergarten students began school on the same day as students in all other grades.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, head of the education committee, also attended the ceremony.
“We are just overjoyed to have this new school board. We fought for this,” Blackwell said. “It makes a big difference when we’re together, when we are unified, in trying to do what we need to do. So young people, we want to say good luck. We know you can be successful.”
Muñoz-Marin students in a dual-language program that uses one of the District’s newly renovated classrooms.
Jerry Jordan, president of the teachers’ union, also celebrated the start of school and the work being done around the District to improve the conditions of school buildings.
“As a classroom teacher, the start of a new school year always filled me with a fresh sense of optimism and anticipation,” Jordan said in a statement. “Our members have worked hard and fought for the best possible teaching and learning conditions in our schools. This year, we’re seeing the results of our efforts to promote PFT’s top priorities.”
“From the modernization of classrooms, to the expansion of the Community Schools model, to the process of lead removal and other building improvements, we are finally on the way to giving our children the schools they deserve.”
City Councilwoman Helen Gym started the day with the children of an undocumented woman who has taken sanctuary in the North Philadelphia Church of the Advocate after fleeing violence from drug cartels in Mexico.
“Today began with a moving reminder that our schools serve everyone,” Gym said in a statement. “This morning I accompanied the four brave children of Carmela Hernandez as they left behind their mother and headed to their respective schools to get the education they are entitled to.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym chats with Carmela Hernandez in the background as the Hernandez children play in the foreground.
“A year ago, there were plenty of worries, but today, there were only smiles as the children said goodbye and headed off for the first day back,” Gym said. “It was so nice to see the staff greet the children with warmth and recognition, and even a high five from one of their principals. I’m proud to know, love, and support these courageous children and their mother, Carmela.”
Gym went on to W.D. Kelley Elementary, where she toured the newly painted cafeteria and later visited Bryant Elementary with Blackwell.
“I’m so grateful to meet the school nurses, support staff, school police officers, crossing guards, and teachers who made the first day of school so welcoming to students and families,” Gym said. “I’ve worked hard with my fellow City Council members to make this year the best one yet. We’re celebrating new school staff, instrumental music programs in every elementary school, and renewed attention to the essential supports all our young people need and deserve.”