Six years ago, Janet McHale and her husband transferred their kindergartner from a private school to Shawmont, a K-8 public school in Northwest Philadelphia.
McHale’s son struggled with transitions, and she worried about how he would adapt to the new environment. On his first day at his new school, her son and his dad met a classroom assistant named Val Spivey. She took the boy on a tour and talked to him, and before long, the kindergartner looked at his father.
“You can leave now, Dad,” he said.
Janet McHale is now the president of the Home and School Association. For six years, she has watched Spivey offer smiles and assistance to parents and students, all of whose first names she knows.
McHale wrote about Spivey’s attitude and adaptability when nominating her as a stand-out school employee to NewsWorks.
“She helps students in kindergarten who are nervous about being in school for the first time to eighth graders who are stressing out about the high school application process or whether ‘that boy likes me.'”
Spivey came to Shawmont 15 years ago. For two years, she worked as a substitute and as an “NTA,” a “non-teacher assistant,” helping out in the office, the halls and the lunchroom. Eventually, she became a special education classroom assistant.
She says her typical day involves monitoring students during breakfast and lunch, helping kids adjust in the classroom and assisting teachers with their daily classroom activities.
Spivey, a mother of three and grandmother of four, doesn’t think she has done anything out of the ordinary to gain community praise.
“I don’t know, it comes naturally,” she said. “I guess I just love the children.”
Krista Spera, a 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia School District and a kindergarten teacher at Shawmont, said Spivey is too humble.
“She’s an icon of the school,” Spera raved. “Every child knows her. The kids flock to her.”
Principal Eileen Hoffman agrees. “She’s wonderful.”
Afternoon in the classroom
On a Thursday afternoon, kindergartners played in small groups in Spera’s classroom. Clusters formed around books, board games and a kitchenette. Student work and posters draped brightly colored bulletin boards, and snowman cut outs hung from clothespins on a strung line.
As soon as Spivey entered, kids looked to her with bright eyes, pausing their play to listen to what she might say.
“Look!” one boy called out. He played with a 1980s-era cell phone.
“What is that?” Spivey asked. “A phone? Look at that phone! Let me see it,” Spivey laughed.
“Hey, how are you?” she said to kids huddled around a book circle. A little girl held up a baby doll that she had been hugging.
“What’s her name?” asked Spivey. “What’s her name? She doesn’t have a name? Give her one!”
Both Spera and McHale said Spivey is unique in her ability to connect with every kid.
“She’s like the Disney World of the school — she applies to all ages,” said Spera.
Teachers trust her because “she just knows how to do every single solitary job. There is never ever a problem.”
In addition to her paid role as a classroom helper, Spivey volunteers when there is a coverage need — like an evening activity, or the supervision of a child whose parents are late to pick him up.
Spivey says her hardest days on the job include the last day of school for the eighth graders. “Oh boy,” she sighed. “It’s like sending your kid off.”
McHale said that in spite of the school district’s struggles, Spivey puts the kids first. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without a smile on her face.” This includes the closing days of the last three school years, when teachers, administrators and parents weren’t sure if Spivey and other assistants would have jobs the following year.
“We [teachers] would hold our breath,” while waiting for assistant staffing decisions, said Spera.
Spivey said she couldn’t let budget decisions affect her job performance. “It’s a larger issue that’s out of my hands,” she said. She drew strength, she said, from the larger school family. “I have such great parents at Shawmont.”
A strong community
Shawmont is known in the community for its parent involvement, and for its music education program. Two years ago, it received a $30,000 grant from the Cole Hamels Foundation for new instruments. In addition to a second and third grade choir, the school offers music lessons and band instruction to fourth through eighth graders. McHale says the strength of Shawmont’s music education has led to a longer enrollment waiting list at a time when other schools are cutting the arts. Perhaps another reason for Shawmont’s strong school community is the fact that it has only had two principals in 21 years.
Before Spivey leaves Spera’s kindergarten classroom, a boy wearing a green apron offers to make her dinner.
“What am I having?” Spivey asked.
He held out some toy food.
“Chicken?! My favorite!” quipped Spivey. “And pizza and eggs, too? Yes, yes.”
Less than a minute after walking into the hallway, Spivey ran into a parent picking up a sick child. She walked over to an art display on the wall and pointed out the student’s artwork.
“Aren’t you proud of that?” she asked.
The child and his mom looked at each other and smiled.