It’s 4:15 p.m. on a Friday and Nicholas D’Orsaneo is still bouncing around Cook-Wissahickon Elementary’s empty halls.
What else would he be doing?
Over the last six years, the Roxborough school has become a bit of a second home to the young music teacher. Most days, you’ll find him there long after the last bell, often, to the chagrin of the evening custodial staff trying to close up.
“We’re friends now so it’s cool,” he says, grinning.
In case it wasn’t clear, D’Orsaneo cares about his job and where he works — a lot. If that means routinely putting in long hours, so be it. Anything less than his best foot forward is unacceptable.
“Yeah there’s days I want to beat my head against the wall, but so what? It’s like any other job. I enjoy the work and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says D’Orsaneo.
The 31-year-old teaches all 402 students at Cook-Wissahickon, a K-8 school.
Three years ago, he and his fiancée started an afterschool choral program that’s performed the national anthem at the Liacouras Center at Temple University and Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles.
He also leads a percussion ensemble and directs all school musicals and concerts.
What’s more, he’s the school’s technology liaison and makes sure students get on their buses afterschool.
It’s a lot of work that takes a lot of time, but it appears his passion for it all never wavers.
“My goal is to make this school successful,” says D’Orsaneo.
When it comes to music, he wants to provide the best program he can, one that’s recognized throughout the city like those at GAMP, the Girard Academic Music Program, and CAPA, short for the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts,
To him, it’s what his “family” deserves.
“A lot of programs in the suburban schools, kids are just given this,” he says.
D’Orsaneo isn’t hell-bent on molding the next generation of music greats, though. No, he’s more interested in showing students what it takes to be a good musician. Things like hard work, dedication, patience and the value of failure.
“I’m trying to teach them how to be good people,” he says.
It’s a big part of why he does everything he does, why he’s willing to spend so much of his own money and convince others to supplement his nearly non-existent annual budget of roughly $100.
“I try to lead by example,” says D’Orsaneo.
For parents like Carma McDaniel, that kind of dedication is invaluable. It’s what makes her more than happy to send her three kids to Cook-Wissahickon each day.
“They have not missed one day this year,” says McDaniel. “I have no problems waking them up.”
Her two daughters, whose last school didn’t have a music program, particularly enjoy being part of D’Orsaneo’s choir. Not surprisingly, he’s a big reason why.
“He takes the time to know them personally,” says McDaniel.
“[The teachers] all tend to help,” she continues. “They do the extra step no matter what.”
Taking on new roles
That includes Jose Ramos and Diane Lanahan, who were also nominated for being standout pieces of Cook-Wissahickon’s staff.
Like D’Orsaneo, Ramos, a seventh and eighth grade literacy teacher, is always happy to go above and beyond what’s asked of him. Even when that means taking on roles he’s never handled before.
This school year, it’s helping eighth graders apply to high school, something with which he doesn’t have a whole lot of experience.
“As far as I’m concerned, even if it’s not written into my job description, if I need to do it to get my job done then it’s part of my job,” says Ramos.
Ramos, who has taught at the school for four years now, is perhaps best known for the service-learning projects he has his students complete.
The student-led projects have focused on subjects such as homelessness and animal abuse, as well as environmental blight.
Last school year students planted a raised-bed garden. There’s also a wild meadow growing in front of the school.
“Now you have kids who are interested in learning because they’re invested in what they’re learning about,” said Ramos.
He couldn’t ask for much more.
An ‘ambassador for education’
Diane Lanahan has taught Cook-Wissahickon for 16 years and worked for the district for 10 more. Still, she’s just as energetic about the job as ever.
Ask her what keeps her going and she’ll give several answers. Part of it, of course, comes from within.
“It’s a sense of duty for me. ” says Lanahan. “I can go seven miles up the road (into the suburbs) and make $95,000.”
But there’s also the camaraderie among staffers, including D’Orsaneo and Ramos.
“There’s a core of us and we kind of feed off of each other,” she says.
And there’s the fact that she wants this school to survive the budget cuts and charter school movement. Lanahan, you see, grew up in Roxborough.
“Even though I’m angry at [the district] because they make it so darn hard, I do feel like I’m an ambassador for education,” she says. “I’m trying to make it work for them so they can have a good education.”