St. James staff completes first year of classes, looks to partner with more families in year two

The St. James School, a 16-student Episcopal school bringing the intensive NativityMiguel middle-school model to the Allegheny West neighborhood, completed its first academic year at the end of June.

Even though the converted church building hums with summer-camp activity – large dormitory tents stand in the backyard and volunteers can be found filling dozens of water balloons in the kitchen – Executive Director David Kasievich and Principal Laura Hoffman-Dimery (also the 5th grade teacher) have already trained their eyes on Sept. 10, when 100 percent of the school’s inaugural fifth-grade class will enter sixth grade, and 17 new fifth-graders will arrive. 

“That retention rate is a feather in our hat,” Kasievich says. “It’s good for the kids. It says a lot about the families’ belief in what we’re doing.”

This includes long school days populated by up to 25 adult volunteers per week, comprehensive meal programs, a plethora of extracurricular travels, and a rigorous academic curriculum interwoven with plenty of arts and hands-on learning in a Christian environment.

Hoffman-Dimery, who has many years’ experience at inner-city schools from New York City and Philadelphia to Oakland, was thrilled to be in at the ground floor.

“All you hear is you can’t do this and you can’t do that,” she says of her experience with previous school-system bureaucracy. “It has been so exciting to see everything that people have told me I can’t do happening in a school. I can’t tell you how good that feels.” 

Hoffman-Dimery knew she would meet many challenges. The Allegheny West neighborhood is among the city’s poorest and most violence-stricken regions.

“One of the things we learn more and more every day is that the needs of this population were unique in that we really were just catering to students at the lowest economic profile,” she says. Before many academic problems could be addressed, school staffers quickly realized that their students were facing issues as fundamental as hunger at home.

‘We’re not running a charity school’ 

Staffers had to take a second look at situations like children coming to school without their uniforms. In many cases, the problem was that families, without access to laundry facilities, had no way to clean their clothes.

Continuing programs to address these fundamental at-home issues – whether by teaming with the SHARE Food Program and other partners to send food home with children or by inviting parents to use the school washer in the morning to keep the kids’ clothes clean – will continue to be a focus in the coming school year.

“We’ve done a good job of immediately addressing the need,” Kasievich says, “but moving forward, I’d like us to reflect on ways to partner more with the families…A lot of our parents have been beaten down. They’ve been caught up in systems where there are a lot of closed doors.”

But in that effort, there is a great need for sensitivity from the St. James staff and board.

“Kids can smell charity from a mile away,” Hoffman-Dimery adds. The last thing staffers want is for children or their parents to perceive that the school views them as charity cases.

“That’s not why we’re here,” Kasievich says. “We’re not running a charity school. We’re doing something about the alarming statistics about the achievement gap. I think our parents are beginning to see that it’s the basics: the clothing, the food, the sleep, that allow kids to thrive in school.” St. James staffers see their additional assistance to the kids as the foundation of an effective learning environment, in which the kids in turn will perform volunteer service as part of the curriculum, rather than simple handouts.

Accomodating all academic levels 

The academic portion of her job has challenged Hoffman-Dimery as well, but mostly in gratifying ways. She says she was prepared to cope with students on the low end of the academic spectrum, but also appreciated an unexpected need to accommodate advanced students as well.

The principal noted that most students began the school year insisting they liked math best. But as the kids also developed a raging interest in books, plays, and poetry (Edgar Allan Poe, Tupac Shakur, and Shel Silverstein were favorites), she considered that in the average test-score-driven public classroom of today, kids may gravitate towards math because it’s “an area where it’s very easy to define success and failure.”

“You can tell the love for reading was not really there,” Hoffman-Dimery says of her students’ former language-arts classrooms. Watching the kids take to reading has been a special joy for her: “reading for pleasure is the number-one link to literacy.”

St. James has also learned a lot about how to best serve next year’s kids physically. Kasievich and Hoffman-Dimery provided kids’ shoes and uniforms with the hope that they’d last all year, “only to realize that 10 year olds grow out of them in two months.”

One major innovation for next year will be 16 “standing desks”, which allow kids to stand or sit on a high stool while they do their class-work.

“Rather than saying, ‘John! Sit down!’ all day, why not let them stand?” For Hoffman-Dimery, it’s “are they engaged? Are they learning?” Some children do better on their feet.

These desks, at $260 each, are just one item in a long list that supporters can help to provide in St. James’ “Opening Doors, One Classroom at a Time” campaign.

Securing the next round of funding 

St. James must secure $800,000 to cover its costs through the end of the 2012-13 school year, up from a budget of about $550,000 last year.

The raise in next year’s budget includes about $100,000 in new construction costs, upgrades in digital literacy equipment, and one new full-time teacher’s salary. 

Development Associate Maria Newman says that the school’s many events for donors and supporters have “absolutely” been an effective means of securing ongoing financial engagement. Grants will also continue to form a significant part of the budget.

As a local scholarship organization, the school is also pleased to have enrolled in Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, in which eligible local businesses can direct part of their tax bill directly to the school. As of July 2, this year’s state budget for EITC credits has doubled from $50 to $100 million, and eligible businesses have seen their EITC tax credit cap raised from $300,000 to $400,000.

Newman, in active outreach to local businesses who could support St. James through this program, anticipates that this will also help the school meet its current goals.

While it’s hectic to operate on a budget that asks so much of donors and volunteers, staffers see the benefit of a broad-based approach that includes a diverse array of partners.

“Our partnerships really do keep us strong,” Newman says. Volunteer professionals, paraprofessionals, or retirees “have really been able to support what we’re trying to inculcate in the kids, and empower them even more.”

Kasievich touts the “people power” that made the inaugural school year possible. “If someone gave us a million dollars tomorrow, great as that would be, it wouldn’t necessarily be the best thing for us.”

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