One of the best schools in Philly to parents: ‘we need more students’

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Imagine a public high school in Philadelphia where class sizes are small, test scores are high, and violent incidents are almost non-existent.

Now imagine that school – the week before school starts – is still begging for more students to enroll.

That’s the scenario at Hill-Freedman World Academy in Northwest Philadelphia, known to a few parents as one of the Philadelphia School District’s best-kept secrets.

Principal Anthony Majewski has been determined to turn the high performing Hill-Freedman Middle School into a high school.

At the end of the 2012-13 school year, he got the go-ahead from the school district and $2.6 million in expansion cash from the Philadelphia School Partnership, but he faced a major hurdle. The existing Hill-Freedman building isn’t big enough to support a full slate of grades, from sixth through 12th.

So he’s spent much of the last year sweating about finding an alternative.

“I am a bit scared about, am I, is the community and the leadership team, able to pull this off?” Majewski said last October. “And that’s scary because we have a lot of kids who put their trust, we have a lot of parents who put their trust in us.”

Both then and now, the district’s financial constraints have made expansion extremely challenging.

In the meantime, Hill-Freedman’s inaugural freshman class squeezed into the existing building, trusting that another location would be secured by sophomore year.

But by last winter break, the district informed Majewski that the building he had hoped to adopt – the former Ada Lewis Middle School – would be too expensive to rehabilitate, at $15 million.

As the district sorted through other options, Majewski was again left to worry about how his students would react.

As a selective-admission magnet school, Hill-Freedman enrolls the sort of kids who could get into the best schools in the city. With all the drama surrounding the building, kids and parents could easily think: Wouldn’t Central or Science Leadership Academy be a much safer choice?

21st century Stretch Armstrong

By February, it was clear that the district’s solution to Majewski’s problem would be a Band-Aid fix. The district has arranged for the high school to be temporarily located at Kinsey Elementary – a school a mile away from Hill-Freedman that was shuttered after the 2012-13 school year.

When that decision was made, the district attempted to assuage parents by inviting them to tour the mothballed school. But the building’s peeling paint, and dirty, barren classrooms overshadowed some of the parents’ warm feelings about Hill-Freedman’s academic rigor.

“The parents came and did a walk-through and they were all like, ‘no way,'” said Majewski. “Even the parents who were committed to Hill-Freedman as a high school were just really disappointed.”

Of last year’s eighth-grade class, Majewski was only able to convince a third to stick with Hill-Freedman. In all, he hoped to attract 150 new freshmen, but so far has just over 100.

“It’s not hard to sell the program. It’s hard to sell the building,” he said. “I did lose parents that said, ‘I love what you’re doing with the students. We love the community, but the building was an issue.'”

Parents were also likely scared away by the logistics. Majewski will remain the sole principal for both the middle school building and the temporary high school building a mile away. He’s taken to calling himself a 21st century Stretch Armstrong.

Walking the halls of Kinsey a mere days before school is set to begin, Majewski nervously joked with maintenance workers who were trying frantically to get the school up to par.

“As you can see we’re not ready,” he said.

Most rooms still didn’t have furniture. Hallways were scuffed and dusty. Giant pallets of shrink-wrapped books and supplies cluttered what was to become the cafeteria.

Aside from cosmetics, though, the 100-year-old school bears some stunningly beautiful bones: Great marble staircases, rich wooden floors and doorways, a grand auditorium fitting of vaudevillian palace.

“Once this is clean, it’s actually a cool building,” he said. “It’s a shame that they closed it.”

All the work currently going into Kinsey could soon be a fleeting memory. Majewski – still hoping to one day house the entire program in Ada Lewis Middle school – says Kinsey will not be big enough to house the entire sixth- through 12th-grade school.

If Hill-Freedman leaves, a district spokesman said Kinsey would either be listed for sale or “repurposed” for another district program.

‘Homey feeling’

One encouraging sign for Majewski is that all but one student in his inaugural freshman class decided to return for a sophomore year. The one who left moved out of state.

Destinae Mason, who will be a 10th-grader in the new building, is still happy she picked Hill-Freedman over her original choice, nearby Girls’ High.

“I feel like teacher time is not always in every school as individual as it needs to be,” she said. “And these teachers are so individual and one-on-one with everybody that you can do whatever you need, and everybody’s there to support you and help you.”

Trae McLean, a freshman from West Oak Lane who has soldiered through a cancer diagnosis, praised Hill-Freedman for its sense of community.

“The reason I stay here is like a ‘homey feeling.’ It’s not really too big, so all the teachers work with you through everything that you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re struggling in class or struggling outside of class – if it’s a personal problem – even then they’ll take time to help you.”

Still, Majewski laments that logistical uncertainty pushed some kids who were accepted to his school to leave the district for one of the city’s public charter schools.

Student migration to charters, after all, is one of the reasons that the district’s finances are in shambles and record numbers of schools, such as Kinsey, were closed in the first place.

“That’s really a disappointment,” said Majewski. “And that’s really a message the district needs to work on, messaging that there’s still great schools in Philadelphia, and they shouldn’t run because of the financial constraints.”

“If not, the good students are going to run,” he said.

Ready or not, the school year is coming. Classes at Hill-Freedman and the rest of the district start Tuesday.

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