Striving for order after chaotic school-year opening at Roosevelt K-8

 Students arriving for the first day of classes at an expanded Roosevelt Elementary/Middle School in East Germantown. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

Students arriving for the first day of classes at an expanded Roosevelt Elementary/Middle School in East Germantown. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

The first day of school at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary began with a sizable dose of chaos as new students, new staff and a very new principal converged at the school’s East Germantown address.

Directives crackled between teachers armed with walkie-talkies as parents trickled into the K-8 school in search of classroom assignments.

Others wandered the building’s perimeter to find out where their children needed to go.

“Teachers weren’t assigned to classrooms,” said James Knipper, who teaches seventh-grade math.

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Breaking good

As the first month of the school year comes to a close, though, staffers who spoke with NewsWorks say that, bit by bit, things are running more smoothly.

Knipper termed the difference since Day One “astronomical.”

“It’s a 200-percent change,” he said.

First-year Principal Byron Ryan, who started just days before the beginning of the school year, attributes much of the progress to a complete willingness on the part of teachers and other employees to work together to fill in the school’s staffing gaps.

Roosevelt lost its assistant principal, two noontime aides, two support-services assistants, a social worker and a counselor when the Philadelphia School District laid off nearly 4,000 employees in June.

As a result, teachers say they often take time away from their prep or lunch periods to help keep an eye on the hallways, which are now filled with more than twice as many students.

“We pretty much all chip in,” said Ryan.

From closure-list to expansion

In April, the district decided it would use Roosevelt as a site for students from all across central Germantown, which lost an elementary school this summer.

Hundreds of students from nearby Robert Fulton Elementary, one of 24 schools closed in June, enrolled at Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, located less than a walking mile away from Fulton, had previously served roughly 320 seventh and eighth graders.

Time has also played a significant factor.

When school started in early September, almost no day-to-day procedures – such as what teachers should do at dismissal time –were in place because of Ryan’s last-minute start.

Over the summer, two other principals were hired, but didn’t stay on board.

“All those systems should have been created during the summer for implementation in September, but we’re getting there,” said Knipper.

Finding a groove

Alex Bouwman, an eighth-grade math teacher, said he’s confident Roosevelt will become a better-oiled machine.

“We can’t put a timeline on changing an entire culture,” said Bouwman. “Building an entirely new identity is huge.”

Staffers say some pieces of the school’s climate will snap into place as long as the environment inside the classroom sets the tone.

Parental concerns linger

At least a few parents, though, aren’t pleased with what they have seen so far.

While the education part of the equation appears to be in working order, they say more attention needs to be paid to school culture.

Dawn Huling has a sixth grader and a kindergartner at the school. She walks the pair to and from school every day because she’s concerned about their safety as students from different neighborhoods stream in and out of the building.

“I can’t stand the school,” said Huling outside Roosevelt during a recent dismissal. “I think the kids are out of control and the teachers aren’t paying enough attention to the kids.”

Huling said her son has wanted to stay home on more than one occasion.

“He says, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go to school today and deal with them,'” said Huling.

Shoshawn Williams also worries about her son’s safety. She said the school needs to do a better job at separating middle-schoolers from students in lower grades.

“It’s just a mess,” said Williams. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Cooperative efforts planned

Ryan said one of his immediate goals is to bridge the knowledge gap between parents and staff at Roosevelt so the former is more clued in to what’s being accomplished inside the building.

Moving forward, the school will enlist parent volunteers to help inside the school. A group of more than 20 former Fulton Elementary parents have asked Ryan for as much.

A new Home & School Association will also soon be formed.

Said Ryan, “It’s just a matter of time now before we’re doing all of the great things that we plan to do.”

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