Philadelphia neighbors push to improve public image of Fairmount public school

Choosing which school to send your kids to is a big decision. Some Philadelphia residents in the city’s Fairmount section are pulling together in support of their neighborhood public school. They say it offers a good education, but suffers from a bad reputation. So a group of parents, some with children still too young to attend school, are working to market the school in hopes of getting families with options to choose the local school.

On a recent early afternoon Fairmount resident Jerilyn Keit Dressler sat on the couch in her living room holding her 2-year-old son Keiton James Dressler. The energetic little boy, having just awoken from a nap, was a little bit cranky. His hair, a mop of blonde curls, was still sweaty. 

Dressler and her husband have been in the neighborhood about seven years and love its proximity to Fairmount Park and so much art and culture. While many city dwellers uproot their lives and move to the suburbs to seek better schools, Dressler is one of a group of urban parents planning to stay. Her search went no further than a few blocks from home: the local public school, Bache-Martin.

“My husband and I have made a committment that this is where we’re going to live, and therefore we want the Bache-Martin option to work for us. Since [Keiton] has been born, and I’ve been talking to other parents and making friends with other parents, I’ve heard the concern about the public school.”

Adopting a school

Dressler says she didn’t want to just complain about the situation, or wish it could be better. So, with a son still years away from school-age, she’s already active with parents and other neighborhood residents, promoting the public school and trying to cement its role as a community hub.

Dressler went to public school in New York and says it served her well: She attended an Ivy League school and now does accounting and consulting for non-profits. Plus, she says, “I feel that it’s really important for my son to grow up knowing about all the kinds of people that live in this world and live in his neighborhood. And being in a public school, you get that really full, wonderful spectrum of all the types of people that are out there.  And I feel that will contribute to his growth and his development and his socialization.”

A majority of Bache-Martin’s 400-plus students, in kindergarten through 8th grade, are African-American, and nearly all live in the surrounding neighborhood. Many of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, based on household income. Dressler says sometimes more affluent parents overlook the local public school option because they don’t understand how good it is.

Changing demographics

Alan Folkman, a property manager with JMH Realty Concepts, which covers the Spring Garden and Fairmount neighborhoods, said, “It used to be basically undergraduates and lower-income, and as it has gentrified, it has really moved up.”

When Folkman started working in the neighborhood 25 years ago, he says it was dangerous. But he says as the city has grown, so has this neighborhood. Folkman thinks most of the neighborhood turnover has been by choice: people selling properties they owned or inherited when their parents passed away. It’s now a middle- and upper middle-class neighborhood full of new housing and restaurants. Folkman says some houses are selling in the $500,000 to $800,000 range. 

Folkman says he’s heard from several people who want to stay in the area so their children can attend Bache-Martin. “It’s really a model neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a neighborhood where you have a mix of African-Americans, white, Hispanic neighbors. We have people who own. We have people who rent. It’s the only neighborhood where you can actually walk to the city, walk to the park, and still park in front of your own house every night.”

Is there a PR agent in the house?

Fairmount resident Carolyne Dilgard-Clark met her husband at a neighborhood pub 13 years ago and says the family doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon. The attorney now lives just two blocks from Bache-Martin with her husband and three children — her oldest child, Philip, is in first grade there.

“It’s a wonderful school with wonderful programs and faculty, wonderful resources,” she said. “It’s had a difficult time in recent years marketing itself to neighborhood families. And we’ve definitely seen a re-surgence both in neighborhood families choosing public school as an option and choosing Bache as an option.”   

The school has some of the city’s smallest class sizes and some of its students’ test scores rival those of other highly lauded Philadelphia schools, including Greenfield.

Dilgard-Clark is the Vice President of the Bache-Martin Home and School Association. She says when she looked at the school, it already had a strong leadership team, from the principal down to the teachers, arts and music education, and a committed parent group.

“We’ve taken what it already has and put it on display,” she said. “What we have changed is not as much from an education perspective but more from a community standpoint, and what we’ve done is try and open the doors to the school to broaden our stakeholders involved in the school.”

Dilgard-Clark says to have a wonderful, vibrant community, there needs to be a wonderful, vibrant school.  So the school building’s now open for movie night and community programs outside of school hours, to bring the communtiy and the school together.

She says for Bache-Martin it’s also important to reach out to the larger community for help because while other school turn to parents, some of Bache-Martin’s students come from households where money’s tight and buying school supplies is a challenge.

For evidence of the groundswell of support for the school, look no further than the windows and trees around Fairmount. Corrugated plastic tigers, decorated by children, are being sold for $15 each to raise money for the school as part of this weekend’s Fairmount Scavenger Hunt and Ice-Cream Social.

Admiring the sign in front her home that her son colored, Jerilyn Keit Dressler says she has friends who are still thinking of moving away, but she’s doing everything she can to give them good reasons to stay.

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