Eight schools get upgrades to early childhood classrooms

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

Superintendent William Hite visited Allen M. Stearne Elementary School in Frankford to tour the newly renovated pre-kindergarten to 2nd-grade classrooms. New lighting was installed in each room and the walls were painted with vivid colors to create an environment conducive to learning.

The renovations are a part of the District’s $1.1 billion capital program, designed to bring needed improvements to its huge infrastructure.

District officials focused on capital and environmental improvements, Hite said.

“And not just thinking about environments in terms of HVACs and roofs, but also the appearance of classrooms and the learning environments of classrooms,” he said.

Stearne, built in 1966, is one of eight schools to receive these improvements. The others are Pennell, Locke, Lea, Duckrey, Gideon and Meade Elementary Schools, and Haverford Learning Center, part of the District’s Bright Futures early childhood programming. The schools’ selection was based on their low literacy scores.

“It’s really important that our young people, our staff members, and quite frankly, our families experience something very different than the old, dark buildings that we traditionally have,” Hite said.

“What we want to do is brighten these up. We wanted to begin thinking about the environment in terms of feel and look and making sure that educationally, they’re conducive to engaging young people in the things we need to engage them in.”

In addition to paint and lighting, the rooms received an upgrade in furniture and learning tools. New desks, chairs, cabinets, closets, area rugs, and more were selected and designed to promote a classroom environment in which small groups of students can learn in different designated areas of the classroom.

Teachers will receive professional development training and assistance throughout the year so they can make the most out of their new classroom model. Also, a survey will be distributed to the schools to see what is or isn’t helpful to the teachers.

Stearne is expecting 560 students for the 2017-18 school year, and there is excitement among the faculty and staff about the improvements.

“We’re just very appreciative that Stearne was selected to even take part in this modernization,” said principal Mecca Jackson. “And our staff is ready to tackle this challenge this year when we implement, with fidelity, everything they’ve brought to us.”

The upgrades cost more than $5 million, with $700,000 coming from the William Penn Foundation.

But in a cash-strapped District, where schools are in need of serious repairs ranging from leaky roofs to electrical systems to new construction, why focus on these classroom upgrades? For instance, the malfunction in Munoz-Marin Elementary School’s air-conditioning system caused mold all over the school that could delay its opening.

“We still have the leaky roofs. We still have to fix that,” Hite said. “But we also have to give some attention to the environments where our young people are learning and where educators are teaching.”

He added, “This is not just about buying new furniture, but about buying the things that will be conducive to the literacy that we know, based from the evidence, are effective.”

The ultimate goal is to make these upgrades in classrooms throughout the District, but for now, some schools will receive some improvements.

“While we’re starting with these eight,” Hite said, “this is a project we want to take throughout the School District of Philadelphia so that the children are actually experiencing something very different.”