by Shelly Yanoff
As I walked into the Henry Houston school in Mount Airy, I felt almost like I was walking into another era. The building is big; the hallways are wide; the entrance and marble stairs are shining; the volunteer on desk duty smiles and directs me to the principal’s office.
In the middle of every crisis after crisis experienced by Philadelphia’s public schools, the school seems quiet and removed from the headline turmoil. I had come without an appointment to look around at this old fashioned neighborhood public school.
I went to the office and by chance, LeRoy Hall, the principal, was right there, talking about the lunchroom with someone in the office.
Trapped by coincidence, he asked me to wait for a few minutes and he would be glad to take me around the school. What luck!
As we walked around the school, young men shook hands with the principal and young women exchanged greetings with him as did the teachers and other grown-ups we encountered.
Hall is new to the school and new to being a principal – he is enthusiastic and determined to be successful. He is starting this career in a school that, like many of the city’s public schools built in the early twentieth century, has the capacity to serve many more students that are enrolled. It’s a school surrounded by families that have chosen to send their children to private, parochial or charter schools.
But there are some parents of young children in the area who are considering Houston, and this principal has expectations that the school population will grow. Indeed, one of Hall’s goals is to have many more students choose to attend the school – there’s plenty of room and energy.
Among other things, the school boasts an extraordinary music teacher and program – check out the Houston Buzz on YouTube, where the students and the principal sing and proclaim that “This Year’s Gonna Be a Great Year at Houston School.”
On the day of my visit, the struggling heating system of the school library had been fixed, a relief for volunteers that come to shelve the books and offer some library services to the children. (Note: most of the city’s public schools don’t have librarians ).
We bump into a leader of the many volunteers who read with and tutor students at the school. She also helps coordinate the volunteers who will be shelving the books in that library now that there’s heat . As we talk and walk in the “lower school,” we pass lots of student work on the walls.
We next go into the “upper school” where the hallways are quiet and again the kids and faculty in the halls greet the principal with handshakes, smiles and enthusiasm.
Hall says he is working to have more student work displayed in the “upper school,” and hopes that in a year there will be much more.
His major goal for the year is for students to achieve significant academic progress.
“That is what education is all about,” he says.
With the release of a little more money from the district, he is hoping to purchase more books, programs and other supplies in pursuit of that goal.
I asked him what his five-year goal is. He says he hopes that many more students will be clamoring to attend Houston school. He wants the school to be a major first choice for students and parents in the community – to fill that building with successful kids with high expectations.
While he is building toward that, I am reminded of the song, “This year – the year’s gonna be a great year at Houston school.”
Shelly Yanoff is a Mt. Airy resident and the former director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth.