Philly district spending $5 million to spruce up classrooms

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Teacher Kelly Kaczmarek hardly recognizes her kindergarten classroom.



For years, Room 210 at Stearne Elementary in Frankford featured dim lighting, old desks and chairs, and the sorts of materials that were standard issue in Philadelphia rooms for decades.

Now, 210 is transformed: new paint, bright lights, a colorful rug, handmade cubbies, boxes and boxes of new hands-on learning materials for students to explore, and extensive technology, including six iPads and a huge smartboard.


Kaczmarek was astonished that she would not have to make her usual back-to-school runs to Walmart to shop sales, stocking up on supplies so her students would have new materials for the year. She said she was used to a different kind of classroom — “old tile floors, old materials, books that might have drawings in them, might have rips and tears.”





On Thursday, the Philadelphia School District unveiled a $5 million initiative to modernize select classrooms at eight city schools in an effort to boost achievement there. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. toured Stearne, sitting in new chairs, examining science equipment, and testing a contraption called the whisper phone, which allows students to hear how they sound during independent reading. (Hite did well reading Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel in a first-grade classroom.)

Camera icon JOY LEE / Staff Photographer

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. reads a passage from “Owl at Home” through a new telephone tool that’s part of a first grade classroom at Stearne Elementary School. Behind him is Mecca Jackson, the new principal of Stearne, and on the left is Paula Sahm, one of the educational facilities planners. 

Pre-K through second-grade classrooms at the schools — Stearne as well as Pennell, Locke, Lea, Duckrey, Gideon, Meade, and Haverford Learning Center — have gotten complete makeovers, with everything from flexible seating and new paint to cutting-edge technology and materials selected to help students learn better. The schools were chosen based on low literacy scores.

The district is paying $4.4 million out of its capital budget for the projects; the William Penn Foundation provided about $700,000 of support as well.



“We’re intentionally focusing the work of our capital program on K-2 literacy,” said Hite, who has made boosting students’ reading abilities a centerpiece of his administration.

The school system’s capital needs are enormous. A district study released this year found that Philadelphia has almost $5 billion worth of repairs outstanding at its more than 200 schools, money it does not have.

Still, Hite said, sprucing up classrooms must be a priority as well.

“We still have the leaky roofs, and we still have to fix them, but we still have to give some attention to the environment where our young people are learning,” he said. “It’s all about getting people excited about coming to school every day. It’s important for people to see these investments.”




Only the lower-grade classrooms at the eight schools will get the top-to-bottom treatment Stearne showed off Thursday. But schools around the district are moving to embrace elements of the upgrade, including center-based learning, which allows students to explore materials, grouped by subject, on their own, as opposed to more traditional teacher-led instruction.

Kaczmarek said she can’t wait to use the sensory tables, the science center, the writing lab. The new setup, she said, will allow her students to be more engaged in activities they choose.

“It gives me the opportunity to meet them individually,” said Kaczmarek, a five-year veteran of Stearne, which scored a 25 out of 100 on the School District’s internal performance measure.

Ryan Smith, a lead teacher at the school, can’t remember the last time Stearne, built in 1966, got new things — maybe when the actor Kevin Hart donated a few laptop carts six or seven years ago.




Smith imagines the brighter and more sophisticated settings will inspire Stearne students to achieve more, and give them not just an academic boost but also an emotional one, knowing that they are worthy of such investments. The total reboot is a revelation, he said.

“This is 21st-century learning,” said Smith. “You’re not used to seeing these things in Philadelphia.”

Teachers at the eight schools will receive training in using the new materials next week, but Smith is eager for what happens the following week.

“I can’t wait,” he said, “to see the kids’ faces when they see all this, to know it’s theirs.”





























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