St. James School to kick off inaugural 7th grade with Spanish classes, new music programs and newly hired social worker

 A group of fifth and sixth graders pose for a photo before a two-day school camping trip in July. (Photo courtesy of St. James School)

A group of fifth and sixth graders pose for a photo before a two-day school camping trip in July. (Photo courtesy of St. James School)

The students of St. James School had an exciting first in July, while Head of School David Kasievich found himself in a situation any educator knows all too well: providing emergency back-up when some bags were left behind.

Ten of the rising fifth and sixth graders and their chaperones had arrived for a two-night camp-out at Elk Neck State Park in Maryland when they realized some food was missing. So Kasievich made the 90-minute drive from Philadelphia to bring it.

“As I arrived, driving to the camp site with my windows down, I heard screaming,” he told NewsWorks on a school visit last week. But the yells were of the joyous variety.

“They needed six hours to run around like crazy people, and just love it, and just have the freedom they experience with these big open fields,” he said. “They didn’t sleep at all the first night.”

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For eight of the kids, it was their first-ever camping trip; two had been camping with St. James before.

Summer fun

With the summer portion of the intensive school year having just ended in late July, a variety of summer camp opportunities are underway at the Allegheny West school, which opened two years ago with its inaugural fifth grade class. Now, that first class is about to enter the 7th grade, the second class is poised to take over the sixth grade classroom, and sixteen new students are entering the fifth grade.

Camping isn’t the only activity made possible by the intensive fundraising that covers most of the costs at the Nativity Miguel-modeled episcopal middle school. Two kids enjoyed a stint with Warminster’s Special Equestrians, a stable dedicated to helping youth with social and emotional challenges. Others, through an ongoing partnership with William Penn Charter School, attended day camps that included a River Sharks game, sports, crafts, and overnight thrills like a midnight swim.

False perceptions

Kasievich and Laura Hoffman-Dimery, the school principal, know the school still faces a variety of conflicting perceptions as it goes into its third year.

On one hand, “I think the world believes…that we would have a line of 400 people out the door,” said Hoffman-Dimery of some parents’ worries. But that’s not the reality: “It’s still a lot of building trust in the community; letting people know we’re here.”

“There still might be the perception that what we’re offering, they don’t have access to,” Kasievich added of others unaware of the school’s low cost to families, who are recruited based on income level and location. “There’s still some kind of block there.”

Door-to-door recruiting

Both school leaders confirmed that a lot of the recruitment at St. James continues to be a door-to-door process of meeting prospective families in their homes. Kasievich said the recent upheaval in the school district has been a wake-up call to some parents who hadn’t made a habit of researching school options. Some of them have come knocking at St. James, while Kasievich said he’s been surprised to see other parents who are increasingly dissatisfied with the city’s crop of charter schools.

But he and Hoffman-Dimery insist that the parents who call St. James when their kids are already enrolled in multiple charter-school lotteries are not the families their model serves.

“Those parents are going to find the right school for their child,” Hoffman-Dimery said. “They’re out there shopping. We want to find the parent that [isn’t]…because those are the kids that fall through the cracks.”

Spanish, pianos, and high school

The seventh-grade kick-off will mark several important changes to the school, including a dedicated social worker joining the staff, as well as Spanish classes and new music offerings.

Last year, each child studied the violin, and while the results were mostly positive, “we learned early on that violin may not have been the best instrument to start with,” Kasievich admitted. Next year will include opportunities to study brass instruments, percussion, the keyboard and choral singing, aided by possible partnerships with Tune Up Philly and the Settlement Music School.

Former AmeriCorps volunteer Kevin Todd provides another important update, in his new role as the Director of High School Placement and Graduate Support. As St. James students enter seventh grade and feel the pressure of high school admissions, a new segment of the curriculum that Hoffman-Dimery called “prep class” will focus on researching schools, understanding scholarship and financial aid applications test-taking and more.

A taste of the future

As part of the process, St. James kids have already shadowed students at Penn Charter, the Philadelphia High School for Girls, and Exton’s School at Church Farm.

“Some came back from visiting high schools excited, some came back terrified,” Kasievich said. So the seventh-grade curriculum will have special focus on “building them up” with the skills for success, and a long-term plan on the part of St. James to support its graduates.

“A lot of times for inner-city kids, it’s really easy to get into a school. It’s a lot harder to stay there,” Hoffman-Dimery said. Support for them could be as simple as letting former students return to use a school computer lab for their high-school assignments if they don’t have a computer at home.

St. James supporters can look forward to the school’s first 5K fundraiser, scheduled for Sept. 7 on Boathouse Row (register through the St. James website). And the gates will open for the 2013-14 school year at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, with a ceremony all are welcome to attend.

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