Seemingly chaotic, there was in fact a method to the madness.
Situated in a combination cafeteria-auditorium inside the Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Roxborough, the assembled students, parents, teachers and support staff were united in at least one aspect.
Due to district prerogatives, few in the white-and-sea-green room knew which teacher their child would be assigned to.
Resulting in anxious anticipation for student and parent alike, this district decision only adds to the frustration of parents, who have also witnessed continued cuts to their children’s education this year.
But in spite of these measures, parents, teachers and administrators are confident in the ability of the school to endure.
Karen Thomas, Principal of Cook-Wissahickon, explained the situation in the cafeteria.
“We had a number of transfers, and a number of new students, and everything was pushed to the last minute,” she said.
Influx of students
Cook-Wiss – as it’s known in the neighborhood – has seen an influx of 100 students from the previous year.
“We have an army of students this year – 525 – and sorting them took some time,” Thomas said.
“This school is getting popular,” said Thomas, noting that in addition to transfer students, families are moving to the neighborhood specifically for the schooling found therein.
Furthermore, the school’s reputation is buttressed by an environment of parent-teacher investment.
Encouraging parent engagement
Carol Haslam, President of the Cook-Wissahickon Home and School Association, took a moment from the excitement of the first day back to expand upon this.
“We’re here to empower parents to be involved,” she said.
Haslam said that after-school clubs and in-classroom assistance are the primary means of parent involvement, but noted that as the school draws from many 2-parent working families, scheduling conflicts are a concern for her.
“We try not to limit our volunteer time just to the daytime,” she said, referring to the potential for evening engagement.
Nor is she limiting herself to families in the immediate vicinity of Cook-Wiss – she is determined to engage parents living outside of the school’s traditional boundaries.
“The challenge is how to empower non-residential parents,” says Haslam.
While adamant that the best interests of the children is her primary motivating factor, she is quick to point out that there are benefits for parents as well.
“Friendships are formed, as is camaraderie,” says Haslam. “When parents step-up, they begin to feel a sense of ownership in their children’s education.”
Showing support and fostering freedom
One parent stepping up is Kristen Chambers. She lives in Southwest Philadelphia, and her daughter – Chyanne, 9 – is among the new fourth-graders accepted this year at Cook-Wiss.
Chambers – who describes herself as a “very involved parent’ – arrived alone at the school at 8:15 am. Desiring to “let her daughter be a big girl”, she let Chyanne take the school bus.
Chyanne arrived at 9:45 am.
“The bus was scheduled to pick my daughter up at 7:09, but arrived at 7:20,” said Chambers, but tempered the driver’s tardiness with an understanding of problems associated with bus routing – they’re often late on the first day – and that this is the furthest her daughter has ever traveled for school.
“There were butterflies, there was nervousness,” she said, describing the shared feeling of mother and daughter, ‘but this being her first day, I wanted to make sure my baby got here.”
“Chyanne couldn’t wait to get to her new school,” says Chambers, mentioning that her daughter was looking forward to the new location, new friends, and the potential for more activities.
Fostering this enthusiasm, Chambers wanted to make sure her daughter would adjust well to the new surroundings.
“I came here to show that mom’s going to be the same mom – mom’s going to support you,” Chambers said.
Furthering the alliance between parents and teacher – and attempting to continue high standards within budgetary realities – is Wanda Brown, a 2nd grade teacher at Cook.
Despite challenges, Cook-Wiss carries on
As she interacts with her students from the previous year in the cafeteria, she also solicits assistance with in-class art projects from parents.
“I only draw stick figures,” she says, “so I’m going to need a little help.”
Ms. Brown typically derives ideas for assignments from the internet, and once a month brings in parents with creative backgrounds to nurture the children through the initial stages, which she then completes on her own.
The hard part, she admits, is getting parents to remain committed to her classroom after their children pass on to the next grade.
“I want them to remember me next year,” she states, “after their children have graduated.”
But despite fewer teachers, bigger class sizes, and the loss of the assistant principal position, Principal Karen Thomas believes in her school’s ability to prosper.
“The people here are very good at what they do,” she said, and added that despite cutbacks, ‘We’ll be good.”