At St. James, a two-grade school was a ‘bigger challenge than imagined,’ but innovation sparks friendship and new skills

As St. James School’s new Director of Development, Dr. Francis Baird is glad his job goes beyond writing grants and engineering fundraisers.

With a PhD from Temple in Psychoeducational Processes, Baird’s professional experience includes social work and criminal justice. After many years as a teacher, clinician and psychologist, he also segued into the development field, and now finds himself well situated at St. James.

 “In many ways, being here at St. James is a culmination of my career,” he says, touting St. James’ “whole child” approach. “I feel like all my experience can be of use.”

“Going forward, I like the fact that I’m drawn into big picture conversations…where are we going, and how do we get there?”

St. James is reporting some exciting directions since it opened its first two-grade school year last fall.

Launching its very first school year in the former church buildings on Clearfield Street, under the Nativity Miguel model of Episcopal schools, St. James welcomed 16 fifth-graders in the fall of 2011. The ultimate goal is a facility for fifth through eighth grades that prepares some of the Hunting Park/Allegheny West neighborhood’s most disadvantaged children to attend the region’s top high schools, and, eventually, colleges.

After some on-the-ground legwork from the staff, the 16 fifth-graders who formed the school’s inaugural classroom (plus one new student) now make up the new 6th grade.

“It was a bigger challenge than we ever imagined,” Head of School David Kasievich admits of introducing the 6th-graders to a new influx of kids, in a school that now numbers 32 students.

“It was hard,” 12-year-old 6th-grader Marquis agrees. After a year of enjoying the full focus of St. James’ dedicated staff and volunteers, some classroom rivalry was inevitable.

But Principal Laura Hoffman-Dimery is facilitating a school-wide community with ideas like a D.E.A.R (Drop Everything And Read) “Buddy Program” between 6th and 5th graders.

Teachers themselves are also encouraged to actively model these reading sessions – instead of eying the kids or catching up on classroom chores, the teachers join D.E.A.R. with their own books.

Adjusting to the needs of the class 

Promoting a love of reading is core to St. James’ educational philosophy, even though the new 5th-graders arrived with greater-than-expected academic challenges. Bumps in the road aren’t surprising, as a significant percentage of the students struggle with poverty, incarcerated relatives, and the loss of family members to gun violence.

But Kasievich is cautiously optimistic, noting that teachers have seen a different type of progress from what they expected, but progress nonetheless. Academic plans were delayed for needed practice on fundamental “character-building” and organizational skills, like sitting nicely in class, keeping notebooks in order, and lining up quietly.

But school is not all about lining up and listening at St. James. A free-flowing educational method allows students to dwell in class on topics that particularly grab their interest, and teachers take an interdisciplinary approach to all subjects.

Kasievich praises new full-time teacher Annie Lerew, who lives onsite along with Kasievich and three Americorps volunteers.

“She’s by far the best science and math teacher I’ve ever seen,” he says, insisting that Lerew could give any instructors at the region’s top schools, including Penn Charter, a run for their money.

A new crop of iPads are in use in the classrooms this year, and, as technology “used well,” Kasievich says the iPads are particularly valuable for math lessons – students reluctant to make mistakes on paper seem to have an easier time experimenting for the right answer on the touch-screen.

The academics and the arts 

The school now boasts two main academic departments: Math and Science, and ELA (English Language Arts) and Reading. But there’s no stinting of the arts, either.

St. James kids receive three hours of art and three hours of music per week, including choral singing, and, new this year, violin lessons in the immersive, warmly encouraging Suzuki method for every child. As of late January, the kids have just moved beyond plucking the strings, and received their bows in a special ceremony.

Friends and community members interested in the students’ artistic progress are invited to the Art and Music Showcase at the school on March 13 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Those involved at St. James are beginning to receive attention from the greater community. Co-founder Dr. Audrey E. Evans (also a co-founder of the Ronald McDonald House) is receiving Philadelphia Magazine’s 2013 Trailblazer Award.

St. James teachers, too, are carrying their efforts beyond school grounds. On a recent snow day, Kasievich says, instead of enjoying the unexpected time off at home, one teacher gathered up her students for some sledding in Fairmount Park.

“It’s an educational mission that is also treating the whole child,” Baird says of why he’s pleased to bring his expertise to St. James.

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