It’s just before noon when rising junior Noelani Hawkins nears the top of a 30-foot pole planted inside a wooded slice of Fairmount Park in Roxborough.
Below her are 15 of her classmates from Martin Luther King High School.
The blue-helmeted bunch smiles skyward as they clutch a pair of ropes hooked to Hawkins’ harness.
It’s Tuesday – the final day of a six-week team-building and leadership program led by the Philadelphia Outward Bound School, an adventure-based education program. Students, one by one, share their personal takeaways.
“One thing I learned was conflict-resolution,” said Hawkins, before leaping from the pole and descending to the ground.
The School District of Philadelphia, a longtime partner of Outward Bound, organized the bi-weekly training sessions as more than 400 Germantown High School students prepare to attend King, the shuttered school’s football rival.
The total comprises nearly half of King’s student body, raising concerns for some that historic neighborhood clashes will play out inside the school’s West Oak Lane building.
Safely on the ground, Hawkins says she’s less worried about arguments and fights after completing the program, which brought together students from King and Germantown.
“King is known for ‘oh it’s a bad school.’ There are fights every day and Germantown is pretty known for that same thing too,” said Hawkins as cars travelled down Henry Avenue in the distance. “But once you get into the school and get used to it, you’re going to know that King is not like this. It’s only a rumor.”
Kenisha Nesmith, who spent her first three years of high school at GHS, agrees: People’s perceptions of the two schools are often ill-informed.
Like Hawkins, she doesn’t expect much conflict during the school year if students can be open-minded.
“First look at yourself before you try to be straight on like, ‘oh I don’t want to get along with this group of kids or this minority group of kids,'” said Nesmith. “Respect other people’s opinions and how they feel about themselves because you never know what’s going on with people.”
Nesmith and Hawkins will be two of about 30 student ambassadors at King during the upcoming school year. They’ll be tasked with setting a positive tone for the rest of the student body.
A batch of about 15 students from South Philadelphia High School also completed the six-week program and will serve a similar role. A number of students from Bok Technical High School will head to the Broad Street school in September after Bok closed in June.
A total of 24 city schools closed this summer as part of the district’s facilities master plan, a rightsizing effort aimed, in part, at addressing the district’s ongoing budget crisis.
“When an individual goes through a profound challenging experience with a group of other individuals, they bond together as a family and that bond is built on a shared common experience,” says Katie Newsom-Pastuszek, executive director of the Philadelphia Outward Bound School.
She adds that, through the program, students also learn that they’re capable of doing more than they thought was possible.
Having students who have learned those lessons will be helpful, says King’s Principal William Wade. He added that the program is part of the reason why he feels comfortable heading into his third school year.
“I know that I am not going to be left on an island and I know we’re going to be supported,” said Wade. “I’m not losing any sleep right now other than the things I’m usually worried about this time of the year with the school year approaching.”
Wade also noted that King has routinely received students from other schools, including traditional and charter schools.
The first day of school is September 9.