The Philadelphia school district welcomed more than 700 new teachers and counselors on Monday to a weeklong orientation that started with a pep talk from Superintendent Tony Watlington, who reminded them that the most important factor in a child’s academic success is consistent access to effective and well-supported teachers.
“We want you to believe in children,” he said.
Board of Education President Reginald Streater, a graduate of Germantown High School and father of two district students, also spoke to the group, telling them: “You are the ingredient we need to make sure we educate the whole child.”
Both Watlington and Streater thanked the new hires for choosing Philadelphia, where teacher salaries lag behind most of the surrounding suburbs, and working conditions can be more difficult. Most of the district’s students come from impoverished backgrounds, and many of the school buildings are in disrepair, or potentially dangerous.
The weeklong orientation is taking place at School of the Future, a technologically advanced school building constructed in 2006 with the help of Microsoft.
The new recruits vary in age and backgrounds, with many still working on their full certification as they embark on a new career in teaching. Some are seasoned teachers who have worked in other districts or charter schools, while others are fresh out of college. They will attend sessions ranging from information on benefits to discussing racism and equity.
The first day of classes is Sept. 5.
Here are brief portraits of four new district teachers:
Boggs-Pinkney was a special education assistant at Muñoz-Marin Elementary in Kensington, when both Principal Amanda Jones and Elaine Rosario, the school’s special education compliance manager, kept telling her she should become a teacher.
“I thought they were in cahoots, but they weren’t,” Boggs-Pinkney said.
Jones would stick her head into Boggs-Pinkney’s classroom every time she walked by, and try to get her attention. “Teach!” Teach!” she’d call out.
Boggs-Pinkney, who has two grown sons and a management degree from South Carolina State University, is heeding the advice this year at age 57.
Initially, Boggs-Pinkney told her fans that she wanted to work on school discipline as a climate manager. But seeing how she interacted with students in her classroom, others in the school kept pushing her towards teaching. “Do it for a year, see if you like it, and go from there,” they advised.
She will be working at Muñoz-Marin, in the same classroom where she was the special education assistant, and with many of the same students. She already knows four of the five first graders with multiple disabilities whom she will be teaching.
This is a second career for Boggs-Pinkney. She worked in human resources for many years, and started at the district in 2010 as a special services assistant while raising her two sons. In 2013, she became a special education assistant, first at Hopkinson Elementary School and then at Muñoz-Marin, where she transferred in 2021.
“I heard good things about the school,” she said, especially how school leaders “encourage staff to do different things.”
Meredith Mehra, deputy chief of the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning who was helping to run the orientation, was principal of the KIPP charter school when Boggs-Pinkney’s son was a student there. She also recognized Boggs-Pinkney’s special qualities.
“I love it,” Mehra said of Boggs-Pinkney becoming a teacher. “I remember who she was as a parent, when she was ready to be involved in any and all conversations about her kiddo. Any school community would be so fortunate to have her as a teacher.”
Boggs-Pinkney is working on completing her certification through an online program, and she is still thinking about what will change for her when she is in charge of the classroom, rather than just serving as an assistant. For sure, she said, “It will be a little different.”
Simeon Fryer, 25 and just out of college, will be a health and physical education teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School.
Standing at about 6 feet, 6 inches, he will also be assistant basketball coach.
A small forward and graduate of Upper Dublin High School, Fryer was recruited to play at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, a Division I school. While on a team organized through the Amateur Athletic Union, he was mentored by Ron Sizer, a teacher at Franklin and a coach in the program.
Sizer is thrilled that his onetime mentee will now be his colleague.
“I’m super proud of Simeon,” Sizer said in an interview. “He was a good player, and we were able to build a great relationship.” While Fryer was in college, he and Sizer kept in touch. “I’d watch his games on my phone,” Sizer said, including NCAA games during March Madness.
What he admired about Fryer was his “resilience,” how he beat health challenges and other circumstances to get better as a player and a student.
“The resiliency this young man has is what young kids need,” Sizer said. “A lot of kids give up. To have somebody who overcame obstacles and made it, kids need to see that.”
Fryer is modest about all that. While he had a shot at playing pro ball overseas, he chose to come back to Philadelphia. People kept telling him he was “good with kids.” Besides, he said, “I have a son, and I was tired of being away from him.”
Sizer, for his part, is hoping to retire from coaching after this school year and turn Franklin’s basketball team over to his protégé, so he can concentrate more on his job teaching precision machine tool technology in the school’s career and technical education program.
Besides his talents and resiliency, Fryer “is fun,” Sizer said. “And he’s younger. He can relate to these kids. They probably listen to the same music. I look forward to watching him grow not only as a teacher and a coach, but also as a man and a father. That’s really cool to me.”
Fanta Mshindi taught in charter schools for 18 years, but now is moving to the district to take a position at Girls High School.
“I was offered a dance teaching post, and that’s my passion,” she said.
Mshindi is a graduate of the district; she studied dance at the High School of Creative and Performing Arts. In 18 years working at Harambee and then Sankofa charter schools, she taught English intervention — meaning she helped students behind in their reading skills to catch up — as well as African studies. She also worked with young Black women in a “sisterhood rites of passage” program.
“I am so excited to teach dance,” she said.
Frank Machos, the district’s director of arts education, said that this year the district has 22 additional positions compared with last school year in music, art, dance and theater. That’s on top of 10 positions added in 2021-22, all part of an effort to rebuild programs that were decimated after the severe state budget cuts that started in 2011.
With the district now in a better financial position, “Things are looking up” for arts programs, he said.
Peter Nelson, 28, has a degree in engineering, and will be teaching math to seventh and eighth graders at Benjamin Franklin K-8 School in Northeast Philadelphia.
A native of Kennett Square, he has lived in Philadelphia for 12 years, starting with when he enrolled at Temple University, “and I wanted to teach here,” he said. After graduating, he worked for several years as a mechanical engineer.
While Nelson is also still taking courses toward getting his full certification, he has a lot of experience, having taught in prisons and juvenile detention centers, and working with young people affected by HIV. Plus, he said, “I know a lot about math.”
He applied to the district in May, and went on a few interviews at schools over the past few months, without success. But as the school year approached, things picked up. “In late July, I started to get attention,” he said. He hit it off with Franklin principal Roslynn Sample-Greene and he was offered the position at Franklin elementary a week ago.
Teaching, he said, “is what I want to do.”
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org.