Students ‘unlock the gate’ at the new St. James School

Something old rang in something new as St. James School opened today for its first school year in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Philadelphia.

The bells of the Wanamaker Tower on the historic St. James the Less Church site chimed as a sharply dressed founding class of 15 fifth-grade students stood quietly in front of their new school. 

Then a group of students unlocked the iron gates behind them. The school year had begun.

Those gates were last open in 2006 when the building on W. Clearfield Street was used as a church school. The school is now being reopened, incrementally, as a middle school for students of low-income families, in a project spearheaded by the rector of an Episcopalian church in Center City.

As staff, faculty and board members took turns calling out the names of the class of 2015, one St. James board member began to cry.

“I’m sorry, I’m nervous,” said Rosalie Cooper, president of Ridge, Allegheny and Hunting Park Civic Association (RAH). “This is really an honor to me.”

Cooper’s son was a student at the former school at St. James when it was open more than a decade ago. To her, the reopening of the school is a symbol of hope for the community.

“We have been broken down from our politicians and this area has really suffered hard, we have guys in the area that need jobs,” she said. “This is a blessing for the kids and I know they’re going to get a good education.”

Extended and affordable schooling

The private school is modeled after the NativityMiguel network of schools, which focuses on faith-based and extended-day and -year programs at a low cost. All students in the new fifth grade class are from the Allegheny West neighborhood, also known as Lower Falls.

“All of our students come from a neighborhood that is struggling economically and educationally,” said Executive Director David Kasievich. He says individualized instruction will help students break through some of the barriers they face each day.

As parents and community members toured the school, Ashley Adams couldn’t tear herself away from the window of her daughter’s new classroom. She chatted with other parents as she watched her daughter, Zahkiyyah Crawford, interact with her new teacher and classmates.

“This is her first time in a [religious] school. She was nervous and I’m nervous,” she said.

Adams was drawn to the school for its small class size, one-on-one student attention, and a “stern” fifth grade teacher, Frank Martino.

“Hopefully, they’ll be taught more discipline,” she said.

Adams says she likes the fact that the school works with families to make tuition affordable, and that the staff took the time to visit their home before school started.

“They wanted to see how the child’s life at home is,” she said. “You don’t get that from public schools; they’re not concerned about what’s going on at home.”

A fund-raising success

Despite the dreary weather on opening day, founding board member Audrey Evans said the rain served a special purpose.

“We hoped so much that it would be a lovely sunny day but I thought, ‘OK, well, the rain helps things grow so that’s what we’ll do, we will grow from now on,'” she said.

Evans, the founder of the Ronald McDonald House and one of the most famous cancer researchers in the nation, has been involved with the St. James School since the planning phases. After retiring in her early 80s, she was eager to get started on her next big project.

She worked with Kasievich and the school’s founder, Rev. Sean Mullen of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, to gain community support and help reach fundraising goals.

“Our goal was to raise $400,000, which would be the cost of running one year of school, and within about a year we overshot that, so we went over the top,” she said.

Evans credits the local community for making the new school possible.

“We never would have done this by ourselves, but the churches, the schools, the neighborhoods have really helped us,” she said. “It’s just a gem to put in this neighborhood.”

After eating bagels and pastries, the kids got right to work by taking a baseline assessment test in their new classroom. The rest of the half-day consisted of ice breakers, prayer and classwork. Typical school days at St. James will run from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Mullen said he hopes the school will be “a light in the city, a force for good and sign of justice.” He also hopes the kids’ first day will be something to brag about.

“I hope they tell [their parents] it was the best first day of school ever and they can’t wait for tomorrow,” Mullen said.

For more information on the school, stjamesphila.org.

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