Just after 8 a.m. Monday, four teenagers stood across Stenton Avenue from Martin Luther King High School waiting for the light to change.
As they crossed the street to go inside for their first day of classes, they saw droves of adults lining the walkway to the front door and didn’t quite know what to make of it.
“We gotta walk through that?” one asked his friends.
Yes, came the answer as they approached a “Welcoming Committee” of comprised of alumni, neighbors, elected officials, clergy members and others.
Those adults gathered at the end of a tumultuous summer to get the youths’ school year started with applause, well-wishes, high fives and “Welcome Back!” exhortations.
And that quartet of youths, like many of those who arrived earlier and later, couldn’t help but smile at the attention.
Why they were there
“The community is with them. The church is with them. When they’re walking in, we’re telling them that we’re all in this together,” said state Rep. Dwight Evans, who was among the elected officials outside the school. “Nobody’s by themselves. We have to demonstrate what’s most important, and that’s education. We all have a role to play.”
The sentiment was shared by school volunteers like Howard Whitner, who held a “Living the Dream” sign along the walkway during an event which had occurred at the since-closed Germantown High School in the past.
And it was shared by clergy members like Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller from Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church who, despite being a vocal School Reform Commission critic during the school-closings debate, shifted focus.
“No matter what the adults are doing, no matter what’s going on with that, somebody has to be simply focused on the young people,” said Waller, who leads two churches in Northwest Philadelphia, thus making MLK his neighborhood school. “The way this day goes will set the trajectory for the whole academic year.
“While everybody else argues about whatever they’re arguing about, we’re focusing on the kids. … Bottom line is we’re here and they’re going to have a good day because we said so.”
From her perspective, Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass said that setting a positive tone on the first day of school could carry over into the entire academic year.
“We have high expectations for our young people. We want to see them excel. We want to see them come to school and enjoy school,” she said. “The hope is that they’ll be encouraged and see that there are so many people who do care about them. This is a signal.”
The scene inside the building
With the GHS closing, and other shifts, MLK Principal William Wade said he expects his enrollment to jump from 895 to roughly 1,300 students this academic year.
Once the students made their way inside, their first stop was at a hallway table to pick up color-coordinated school-uniform shirts. (Ninth grade: Tan. Tenth grade: Blue. Eleventh grade: Red. Twelfth grade: Black.)
Then, they checked papers taped up in the hallways for their homeroom assigments where their class schedules (or rosters) would be distributed.
There were smiles, hugs and questions galore, since, for many, it was a new building. Students were reminded that they had to wear their MLK shirts — hoodies are banned — and get moving to class rather than burning time in the hallways.
There were also a couple small fights, but when asked about one by television reporters, Wade noted that it was between two returning students and their parents were already heading down to the school for a chat.
“I’m very excited. I’m always excited to have the opportunity to mold and shape the youth of America. This is what I signed on for,” said Wade, noting that much planning was made over the summer for the new fiscal realities. “We have to do more with less, and we’re prepared. This is the flagship of this community. We have to be successful.”
When asked about concerns of rivalries heating up in his hallways, he noted that friction occurs in schools everywhere, colleges and in the stands at tonight’s Eagles/Redskins game in Washington, D.C.
“They don’t fight in Sunday school,” said Rev. Waller, dismissive of fears of rivalries since many MLK students have ties to his churches.
MLK football coach Ed Dunn — a transfer from GHS himself, he learned last week that he was no longer laid off — took the community’s support to heart.
“Everybody,” he said, “is all-in to make this work.”
Second day and beyond
At a morning assembly for incoming freshmen, Wade discussed “rules, regulations and everything you’ll need to be successful here.”
He implored the new students to pay attention; when a trio of students failed to do so, Wade had a teacher remove them from the auditorium for a talking-to.
“We want to help you be successful,” he said. “We want you to take that first-day excitement and ride it all the way through your senior year.”
Then, he pointed out a change in the school’s dress policy.
“We’re going to allow you to have your own identity through your shoes,” he said. “We’re not going to say ‘only brown or black shoes’ anymore.”
After the ninth grade was sent back to class, Wade said school officials would look at what the student census is through the rest of the week to determine how much additional teaching and supplemental help MLK High would need this year. He acknowledged, however, that there would be overcrowding in the classrooms.
“When the district sees what we need, we’re going to get it,” he said. “It could take until October, but I hope we don’t have to wait that long.”