School starts in North Philly — hope abounds

    I needed that.

    Spend enough time reading about the Philadelphia schools crisis, and without even realizing it, you can begin to view the city’s public schools as nothing but a sea of misery and dysfunction.


    School violence, budget deficits, union disputes, empty staff positions, angry parents, kids let down at every turn.


    That’s why I’m so glad that I spent a chunk of yesterday morning observing the first day of class at the Tanner Duckrey School at 15th and Diamond streets in North Philadelphia.

    Duckrey is getting a bunch of new students from two schools that have closed — Stanton at 16th and Cumberland, and Pratt at 22nd and Susquehanna.

    Chaos? Hardly. Some students who’d registered weren’t on the rolls, and that will have to be worked out. But what I saw was pretty much like the first day at any school – new book bags, neat clothes, smiling teachers and everybody trying to figure it out.

    I needed to see this to remind me of the thousands of parents who care, the kids ready to learn and teachers who work because they love their jobs. I needed it to remind me of what there is to build on here, and what the stakes are in the debates over the district’s future.

    Teacher Sheila Williams was standing in the school cafeteria holding up a sign that read “2nd grade,” greeting all her new charges with loving smiles and encouragement.

    “I’m excited,” she told me. “We have so many new parents. They’re all on board, we met them over the summer.”

    She supports her union, follows the financial crisis, and sees it mostly as the result of cuts from Harrisburg. But she isn’t obsessing about it. She’s focused on her kids.

    “We just want to teach,” she said with a laugh. “We just want to be here with the children. And hopefully the guys, the suits, will get it together and it will work out OK.”

    Standing outside, greeting kids as they arrived, was teacher Patrick Baiocchi. His standard joke was to ask a tiny, approaching second-grader, “Hello, sir. Are you in the eighth grade?”

    When I ask what he thinks of the financial crisis, he says with a smile that it’s “above my pay grade.”

    He said he’s met superintendent William Hite, and thinks he’s a “good and powerful influence” for the district.

    When I press him and ask what he thinks about being asked to take a pay cut to help the district, he answers carefully.

    “I think it’s important for the people that make those decisions to work on a regular basis with us,” he said. “We’re all hands on deck. I spent $60 last night out of my own pocket to get ready for school with different supplies and stuff, and that was just the first day.”

    I know there are some very tough decisions ahead, but these are people who deserve our attention and support. Like I said, I needed that.

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