Philly high school teacher: Personal relationships, small classes are keys to student success


Forging relationships. Building rapport. Being human enough to show you care.

Whatever you call it, it’s the educational philosophy that Philadelphia School District teacher Sydney Coffin has lived by as he’s traversed some of the toughest high schools in the city.

“Kids need to know that there’s an adult who cares enough about them to listen,” the 15-year district veteran said.

Coffin, now at Edison High School in North Philadelphia, spent the previous seven years teaching English at the now-shuttered University City High School – a school once ranked as the 22nd most violent school in the country. It was eventually given special attention by the district when it was made a Promise Academy in 2010.

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As a Promise Academy, University City shed about half of its existing staff. The remaining faculty and new hires were required to work longer days and go through, as Coffin said, “lots of professional development.”

The factor that had the most impact on students, though, was the faculty’s concerted effort to meet the kids on their level.

“Ironically, the academics started to improve once we started to build friendships and relationships with kids,” said Coffin. “Suddenly the kids were listening to us. They’re saying, ‘This guy understands me. He knows me. I can get along with him. I’m going to stay in his class.”‘

‘Uni’ was still far from a perfect high school, Coffin said. Kids still acted out, cut classes and skipped school, but overall attendance and grades went up.

Coffin attributes a lot of the change at University City to his principal.

It was, Coffin said, “his willingness to listen to his staff and trust us, and to say, ‘You are professionals. I hired you for a reason. I want you to be here. I want you to teach. I’m going to come in and visit your classrooms, but mostly I really want you to be the person in the room who’s in charge.”‘

Despite some gains, the School Reform Commission voted to close University City High School at the end of the 2012-13 school year. At around the same time, it anointed Edison High School with the Promise Academy designation.

(A recent report released by the district suggests that the early success of some of the city’s Promise Academies was later undercut by drastic funding reductions.)

A different school, same problems

Now at Edison, as Coffin wrote recently in The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, he feels like he’s “come full circle.” Again, he sees “crowded classrooms, disruptive behavior, chaos in the hallways, low academic achievement, a lack of sufficient counselors and other supports.”

As a result of the district’s school closings and budget woes, Edison’s enrollment grew by 200 students this year to about 1,100, as the number of teachers dwindled by 30.

Before the district’s leveling process transferred additional teachers to Edison, Coffin was teaching classes with as many as 39 students.

Just as he saw in West Philadelphia, Coffin said there’s a “laundry list” of issues that hinders kids in North Philadelphia from achieving scholastic success. He mentioned a group of students who recently came to him “sobbing” after a triple-shooting in North Philly left one of their friends wounded. 

“Trauma from those issues affects our kids in a very concrete and dramatic way,” he said.

Creating an environment where kids feel safe and comfortable, Coffin said, “is the most important thing that we’re doing as adults in a building that is primarily young people.”

Coffin dreams of a world where class sizes are smaller and society makes adequately funded public education its top priority.

In the meantime, despite the dearth of resources at the school, he’s committed to connecting with kids and helping them become productive members of society.

Although the work often grinds him down, he embraces it as his life’s mission. 

“I don’t have any kids of my own. These are my kids. I care about them as much as they are my kids.” Coffin said. “And when I’m an old man – and some of the kids will say I’m already there … they’re going to be the ones supporting me.”

To hear Coffin discuss these and other issues facing public education in the Philadelphia School District, click on the “speaker button” next to the headline above.

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