Head of School David Kasievich makes it a point to connect with the school’s students. Here he meets with fifth graders John and Nadira. (by Photo Al Cassidy)

Head of School David Kasievich makes it a point to connect with the school’s students. Here he meets with fifth graders John and Nadira. (by Photo Al Cassidy)

by Sue Ann Rybak

It’s the middle of July but school is still in session at St. James School, an Episcopal middle school in the Allegheny West section of North Philadelphia that provides students with a tuition-free private education.

Josiah Cotten, who will be in seventh grade in September, said he likes being here because the teachers are funny and understand him.

“Mr. Austin always jokes with me,” Cotten said. “He makes me laugh and get bad thoughts from my head. Sometimes, I get angry really fast and it’s hard to control my anger. When I went to public school, I didn’t have anybody I could talk to about my anger. Here I can tell my teachers how I am feeling and nobody will laugh at me. My teachers talk to me in a way that I can tell them what’s happening in my family and they will listen.”

Cotten said he no longer worries about being bullied and has made several friends at St. James. He said Amira, another seventh grader in his class, is a great role model.

“She is very nice to me and the teachers,” he said. “She always tries to cheer people up.”

Cotten’s smile lights up the room as he talks about his favorite activities at St. James.

“I love to draw,” he said. “When I focus on my drawing, it helps calm me down. I also love horseback riding. I have two award certificates for horseback riding. My favorite horse is Ben – even though he is really old.”

Elaine Ballengee, of Chestnut Hill, who volunteers at St. James almost daily, said last summer that Cotten participated in Special Equestrians’ GaitWays for School Success, an equine-facilitated learning (EFL) program.

Ballengee said the EFL sessions encourage students to take on leadership roles and help them to concentrate on a specific task.

“It was interesting for me to see kids that I saw one way here at school and saw a completely different child at the barn,” Ballengee said. “Whereas they might be impatient and eager to move on to the next thing at school, at the barn they were sort of forced to take their time and talk to the horses to get them to do what they want.”

She recalled seeing one child who didn’t show a lot of empathy give the horse a kiss.

Denise Quirk, executive director of Special Equestrians, said the workshops consisted of unmounted equine-assisted growth and learning activities that lead up to riding sessions. The program combines equine-human interaction and counseling-based processing skills to increase students’ awareness and control of their emotions and behaviors.

Quirk said a majority of the students in the program have social, emotional, cognitive and behavior challenges. She said staff members work closely with teachers and other educational professionals to tailor the individualized equine-assisted learning program.

“Many of the goals that the teachers have expressed to us involve helping kids to learn how to trust other people and themselves, as well as the ability to follow instructions and take responsibility for their actions,” Quirk said.

She added that working with the horses helps students to develop self-esteem and patience.

Quirk said all of the teachers whose students were involved in the program said they could see some of the skills carry over into the classroom.

“Horses provide immediate feedback,” she said. “You can see students’ confidence grow as they work with the horses and get them to perform different tasks. Not only do the kids learn to respect the horses but they learn to respect themselves and others. It’s pretty extraordinary to watch them interact with the horses. You can see the sheer joy they get from working with the horses.

Quirk added that they are looking forward to expanding the program, which is funded through grants and donations.

“St. James is unique not only in its approach to learning but in its entire curriculum,” she said. “The program is designed to expose kids to a wide variety of experiences through partnerships with other organizations and businesses.”

The school’s unique programs are made possible through its diverse partnerships, which include Temple University. Last year on March, 15 seventh graders worked with graphic design students from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art to make hand-pressed screen prints. The students’ work was later exhibited at Tyler and the prints were sold to benefit the school.

Laura Hoffman-Dimery, principal of St. James, said the school’s diverse partnerships allow the school to focus on educating and nurturing the whole child.

Bringing life to vacant property

In 2008, the Church of St. James the Less, which was built in 1846 and is a National Historic Landmark, was vacant, and the six acres it sat on was overgrown with weeds, shrubs and trees.

St. James School began as a vision of the Rev. Sean Mullen, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Center City, to provide high-quality education for the children who lived in the poverty stricken neighborhood of Allegheny West, where it is more likely for a student to go to jail than to college.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church adopted the vacant property in 2011, and it became a mission of the church and is now one of its primary ministries.

David Kasievich, founding head of the school, said the school is based on the Nativity Miguel Model of education, which includes 60 faith-based schools nationwide. St. James is closely modeled after the Epiphany School in Dorchester, Mass.

“These schools are alternative schools for students who are now stuck in low performing neighborhood public schools,” Kasievich said. “If not for Nativity Miguel Schools, most of our students would end up dropping out of school.”

He added that, unfortunately, without St. James School, a portion of these kids would end up on the streets.

Students learn important skills that will carry them throughout their day and beyond the halls of the classroom. Students Jamya, Tynira, Nadira and Salaam form a line before heading to lunch. (Photo by Al Cassidy)

Students learn important skills that will carry them throughout their day and beyond the halls of the classroom. Students Jamya, Tynira, Nadira and Salaam form a line before heading to lunch. (Photo by Al Cassidy)

Mullen said the philosophy of school is based on the golden rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“It’s crucial that every child understands that he or she is a child of God and has intrinsic value as such and is deserving of respect and love,” Mullen said. “We also want to instill in them a sense of integrity as a human being. As a child of God, they have a responsibility to love their neighbor as their self. It’s part of what drives this school – to love one another and one’s self.”

In September 2011, the school opened with an inaugural class of 16 fifth graders. This September, the school will add it first eighth-grade class, which will bring its total enrollment to about 60 students.

While the average annual cost of educating a child is about $20,000, families at St. James School only pay a nominal fee of $30 per month. The average income for St. James families is less than $15,000 a year.

Philip Price, of Chestnut Hill, who is also a member of the school’s board, said all students are recruited from the neighborhood and live within walking distance of the school.

“It is a very unique school, in the sense that, they are not looking for students who are already academically accomplished,” Price said. “Instead, the focus is on helping those who need the help the most.”

The school has become an oasis in a neighborhood that had one of the highest homicide rates in the city in 2011.

Doug Marshall, also a member of the board at St. James, said the school’s extended school day, which is nine hours long, allows students to receive more individualized instruction. Students also have the opportunity to attend school 11 months out of the year, if necessary. All students are required to attend school until July 3 regardless of their academic proficiency.

“You don’t expect a school in North Philadelphia to be on a leafy green campus, and you don’t expect the students to get the kind of opportunity they are getting here,” said Marshall, retired dean of faculty at St.Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. “And that’s part of the philosophy of the school that we actually have the resources that can change the educational horizons of the students who come into this community and into our care.”

And he added that care includes nurturing the whole child – not just academically, but physically and emotionally.

Laura Hoffman-Dimery, principal at St. James, said that for students to succeed academically, they must have a basic pyramid of needs met.

“We pay for four meals a day,” she said. “All of our families have to qualify for a free or reduced lunch in order to attend. We buy the uniforms and all the books and supplies for students.”

Hoffman-Dimery said students must feel comfortable, safe and respected in order to learn.

She said often teachers and staff have to “re-educate the child on what a school environment is like when they first come to St. James.”

“Often students were forced to physically defend themselves at their previous schools,” Hoffman-Dimery said. “I have had students say, ‘I didn’t want to fight in my last school – had to fight.’”

She said the school has some students who have been expelled from multiple schools, but after they came to St. James those same students have had zero incidents.

“For some students, it’s simply a matter of creating a safe environment,” Hoffman-Dimery said. “We’ve had zero fist fights in the three years we’ve been open.”

Price added that people will often comment to him that while the school is not going to eliminate poverty in that neighborhood, it is making a difference in the lives of the children who live in the community.

“We are giving people more opportunities and making their environments much more healthy and safe,” Price said. “When you work with students who are performing below grade level, you have to work with them for a couple years before you begin to see progress. It requires a long-term commitment. There is no quick fix.”

A support system beyond graduation

Kasievich said the educational support system at St. James extends well beyond graduation.

“People are asking us when is graduation and we are encouraging them not to use the word graduation,” he said. “At St. James School, our students advance and are promoted to high school. The educational support doesn’t stop here but will extend into their high school career through our high school placement and graduate support program. One of the things that Nativity Miguel schools are best known for is that they are faith-based and that they provide as much support as necessary to ensure that their graduates are successful in high school and beyond.”

Jim Ballengee, a Chestnut Hill resident and a member of St. James board of directors, said the school faces unique challenges because a majority of the students come from diverse backgrounds and with varying academic aptitude. He added that without the dedication and enormous support from the community the school would not be able to function.

He said one of the reasons the school is so successful in connecting with the students and parents in the neighborhood is that several St. James staff and faculty live on the campus, including Kasievich, founding head of the school, Kevin Todd, director of high school placement, Annie Lerew, mathematics teacher and four Americorp volunteers. Other residents include 30,000 bees, five chickens and Alley, a Siberian Husky and the school’s mascot.

When asked why he got involved with a school in North Philadelphia versus one in Mt. Airy, Ballengee said the school is innovative in its approach to addressing the needs of low-income students. He added that more schools should be modeled after St. James.

“The specter of a failing public school system is something that affects not only everyone in the city but the society as a whole,” said James Ballengee, director of Service Learning at William Penn Charter School. Many people often feel overwhelmed by the problem.”

He said people who donate or volunteer at the school see first-hand the impact their support provides.

More than 600 benefactors including individuals, corporations, foundations and churches (of different denominations) provide ongoing funding and support services for the school.

The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 8000 St. Martins Lane, and William Penn Charter School, 3000 W. School House Lane, are just two of the many schools, churches and other organizations that provide ongoing support for the school.

The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, rector at Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, said the church’s relationship with St. James is based on partnership.

“It is mutual and reciprocal,” Kerbel said. “We are working together with other people as partners.”

When asked why the church decided to help raise funds for St. James School’s Community Kitchen, he replied that its goal is to build strong community relationships and not just do charity work.

“Community engagement is an important part of St. Martins,” Kerbel said. “It is a primary goal of the parish. It’s something we are always aspiring to do better. The approach at St. Martin’s is that we are working for the good of the whole city. Where you live and your socio-economic status doesn’t change your value as a person.”

Currently, the school’s kitchen is small, outdated and can only be used to warm food, which limits the school’s ability to provide fresh, healthful meals to its students.

The new kitchen will enable the school to provide more nutritious meals for students, a space to teach kids the importance of cooking and eating healthy, and a Food Resource Center that will distribute food and meals to student homes in need.

In celebration of its 75th anniversary, Di Bruno Brothers has committed to helping to raise $75,000 towards the neighborhood kitchen.

Chestnut Hill resident Ronna Tyndall, who is also a St. James board member, said that despite the many challenges students at St. James School face everyday, they are determined to succeed.

“Even though several of the school’s students’ test scores are below grade level, those same children are enormously disciplined and hardworking,” Tyndall said. “For the first time in many of these students lives, they can envision a future filled with endless opportunities.”

Tyndall recalled the reaction of one child, who had never been out of North Philadelphia, to a recent school trip to go skiing.

“While he was standing at the top of the snow-covered hill, he told his teacher ‘I never knew the world could look like this,’” Tyndall said. “All you have to do is hear a couple of stories to understand why local residents feel compelled to help.”

She said the network of support for St. James School just keeps growing.

“It’s like this tiny seed that has been planted and watered so carefully, and just the right amount of sunshine has landed on it. It humbles us to be a part of it.”

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