A sense of optimism radiated from residents who gathered inside East Falls Presbyterian Church for a recent discussion about the future of Thomas Mifflin Elementary.
For years, the neighborhood’s longstanding public school option has carried a stigma of being unruly and underachieving, leaving many parents, with the means, to seek out alternatives, usually a nearby Catholic or private institution.
But with a new, largely well-liked principal now helming the Conrad Street school and a reportedly transformed educational environment, a number of the approximately 20 participants that showed for the Thursday night event expressed a belief Mifflin can and should become a viable choice for more families.
“There’s a lot of positive energy among parents and neighbors,” said Saskia Caporellie, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years. “We think [Principal Leslie] Mason has done some really good things, so we’re hopeful.”
Saddled with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s decision to close St. Bridget Elementary at the end of this academic year, Caporellie decided to enroll both of her children at Mifflin for next fall. It’s a move she had never considered until the announcement. She had heard “bad stories” and it wasn’t necessary at the time to investigate with a visit.
A shift in perspective
Caporellie’s attitude changed after her husband took a tour around the building and returned with few negatives to report.
“He came back and he said, ‘I’ll tell you, it’s a school and kids are being taught and kids are in the classroom and they’re paying attention and there are no kids swinging from the chandeliers or running through the hallways. It’s just a school like any other school,'” said Caporellie. “And I think for us, it’s sad to say, a revelation, because we had just heard bad stories and it’s really not.”
Linda Norris, a noon-time aide at Mifflin, said other parents would likely share similar experiences if they simply took a look inside the school instead of relying on rumors.
“Like they say, ‘seeing is believing,'” said Norris, whose eight children all attended Mifflin. “You’ve got to come and see.”
School Reform Commission member Lorene Cary, who led the informal event, entitled “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” did so recently and said there were a number of positives at the school.
“It felt like a good, human eco-system,” said Cary, noting that signs included the fact that there were adults in the hallways and that she received a warm welcome.
Cary, who is an East Falls resident, told the small group that there’s no reason, given the nature of the neighborhood, that parents shouldn’t have a great public school to consider. She said it will take strong and widespread community involvement to make it happen. Supporting Mason will also go a long way, she added.
“We’re all here. We’re it. There’s not going to be anybody else. There’s not going to be any cavalry,” said Cary.
An uncertain fate
Toward the end of the hour-plus discussion, Caporellie brought up what was perhaps on the minds of everyone in the room.
In an effort to offset the dire financial straits the School District of Philadelphia finds itself in, officials recently proposed, among other things, to close 60 schools over the next five years. It’s projected that if left unchecked, the District’s budget hole would top $1 billion by the end of that same period.
While very supportive of a community rallying around and working with Mifflin, Caporellie expressed concern that the effort could be cut short by the District’s recommendations.
The list of schools that may close is not available yet, but the School District recently shuttered eight schools following votes on each by the School Reform Commission.
Plant capacity was among the factors that lead to each of those final decisions, but school performance also played a part.
Mifflin’s School Performance Index, a measure of individual grades and growth on state standardized testing, sits at seven.
Cary said Mifflin is not automatically headed for the chopping block as a result. “The best influence is to have a crazy, thriving community,” she said.
Tom Sauerman, president of the East Falls Community Council, which organized the event, said a “Friends” support group for Mifflin School may be in the works. To date, two Fallsers have approached him about forming a nonprofit to that end, but nothing concrete is in motion yet.