Opening day at a Philly school that reflects the district’s triumphs and tribulations

Robert Morris School in North Philadelphia has made notable academic progress. But, like the school district, it still has a long way to go.

Philadelphia students arrive for the first day of school, 2019. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia students arrive for the first day of school, 2019. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This will be crossing guard Tamika Robinson’s sixth year working the northeast corner of Robert Morris School in North Philadelphia.

“It’s a pretty good, quiet corner,” said Robinson as she watched for the first group of crossers for the 2019-20 school year. “Sometimes it’s a little congested when the busses are here and the adults get a little antsy.”

Philadelphia students arrive for the first day of school Tuesday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When Robinson started here, there were a lot of antsy adults in Philadelphia. The city’s public school system was stuck in yet another budget crisis, and newly appointed Superintendent William Hite had recently shuttered about two dozen schools.

Now, Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney can point to progress. The books are balanced. All of the unions representing school employees have contracts. And there are modest signs of academic growth — in both graduation rates and standardized test scores.

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Philadelphia superintendent William Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney ring bells with students at Robert Morris Elementary School.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Officials say the key now is stability.

“I think it’s important in my position. I think it’s important in the principal’s position,” said Hite. “I think it’s extremely important in the teacher’s position.”

It’s hard to know how long that stability will last.

The district’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers expires in less than a year, and negotiations should begin some time this semester. The district still has a long-term structural deficit, which will, at some point, demand new money, cutbacks, or both.

4th grader Remiyah Taylor is greeted with high fives on the first day of school at Robert Morris Elementary in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Those worries, though, didn’t cloud the opening-day ceremony at Robert Morris, a K-8 school whose triumphs and tribulations seem to parallel districtwide trends.

There are signs that the school has benefited from the district’s relative calm and gradual reinvestment. Suspension rates are down. Reading scores are up.

Still, only three in ten students are on grade level in reading and just one in ten can say the same in math.

Like the district as a whole, Robert Morris has a long way to go.

2nd grader Navayah Reynolds rings in the new school year at the 2019 start of school bell ringing ceremony in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The school’s progress, though, was significant enough that officials chose to do their annual bell-ringing ceremony in Robert Morris’ school yard. Members of the Philadelphia 76ers dunk squad joined with Comcast employees to high-five students as they arrived for the first day of the new school year.

Darnell Dickens sported a huge smile as he dropped off his daughter, Cassidy Marie Dickens. The single dad from North Philadelphia initially chose a Catholic school for his daughter, but transferred her to Morris last year. He says it’s been a big improvement.

Robert Morris Elementary School students are greeted with high fives on the first day of school. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

While dignitaries spoke inside the Morris courtyard, their voices competed with the beeping sound of backhoes in a nearby lot.

There’s new construction sprouting on every side of the school, signs of gentrification’s push north from Center City.

Morris, though, doesn’t yet reflect this new influx of wealth and residents. Enrollment, in fact, has dropped 30% since the 2015-16 school year.

James and Leola McFadden live on the same corner where Tamika Robinson ushers children across the street. They’re both retired teachers, and Leola McFadden spent four decades at Morris.

They say the newcomers aren’t sending their kids to the school, at least as far as they can tell.

Nine in ten students at Morris are African-American and the district counts all 253 children as low-income.

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