Students risk a lot to buy into charismatic principal’s vision

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks

Anthony Majewski learned at an early age what it means to lose trust in the powers that be.

As a 6th grader, he says he was "jacked up" by a math teacher who told him he was "never going to be anybody."

"Like, he actually jacked me up, and put me up against the wall, ’cause I don’t sit still too well," Majewski, 44, said, chuckling. "I don’t think they had ADHD back then."

Although he laughs it off now, that moment forged the educational philosophy of the man who is now principal at the Philadelphia School District’s Hill-Freedman World Academy.

"That’s kind of my passion," he said, "creating an environment where kids never feel like that."

Talk to students, parents, and faculty at Hill-Freedman, and they’ll tell you that, so far, Majewski has succeeded.

But talk to Majewski himself, and he’ll tell you that this year will prove to be his greatest test in maintaining that trust.

That, he says, is the challenge of expanding a school in the midst of a district-wide budget crisis.

The pitch

Hill-Freedman is a small, selective-admission, traditional public school in Northwest Philadelphia. It serves a student body that’s 91.7 percent African-American and 83.4 percent economically disadvantaged.

The school itself has two parts: One is a magnet program where the best and brightest learn through the International Baccalaureate program, a world-minded curriculum at an accelerated pace above their grade levels.

The other part is tailored for intellectually and physically disabled students with complex support needs.

Although the two student programs have different curriculums, the school prides itself on providing "as many opportunities for inclusion as possible," including mixing its complex-needs and magnet students in elective courses such as cooking and ceramics.

Children applying for admission to the magnet program must score well on state tests and must have all As and Bs on report cards from their previous two years. And their attendance rate must be 95 percent or better, with a maximum of five tardy arrivals.

Among all middle schools in Pennsylvania, Hill-Freedman ranks sixth in aggregate English and math middle school PSSA testing — second only to Julia R. Masterman among Philadelphia’s other traditional public middle schools.

Until this year, the school served grades 6-8, but after conversations with the Hill-Freedman community — specifically with complex-needs parents who disliked the idea of sending their children to nearby Martin Luther King High School — Majewski convinced the District to let him expand it into a high school.

Majewski then made his pitch to his magnet-school 8th graders — 95 percent of whom typically would have gone to the District’s long-esteemed, high-performing high schools: Don’t go to Central or Girls High, he cajoled. Instead, stay here and become Hill-Freedman’s first 9th-grade class.

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