Education as an enjoyable journey

Posted: April 04, 2007

Zooming through the hallways of Delsea Regional High School on her cherry-red scooter, Madeline Propert was in her element - calling hello to the students who lingered after school, chatting up a colleague.

After 30 years at the Gloucester County school, Propert is known to everyone at Delsea. Chances are she's taught them the difference between abstract and concrete nouns, or sat with them in a meeting about the school's annual fund-raising drive to help homeless families, or helped them get publicity for some good deed they've done.

Propert wears multiple hats. She's an English teacher first and foremost, and she also oversees activities at the school. But her frequent dispatches about the goings-on, large and small, of the school district are her chief joy.

Her meticulous news releases - complete with a photo of every student mentioned, the activities they participate in, and their parents' names - pile up in reporter's in boxes, at least a few a week. She receives no compensation for serving as Delsea's public-relations specialist.

Lists of honor-roll students, articles about students of the month, and notes about the senior citizens' prom (students host local seniors) might be ho-hum to some. Propert regards each as important.

"Somebody said to me, 'Why bother? It doesn't make a difference.' But when students see their name or their picture in the paper, it means so much to them," Propert said.

It's not a high-profile gig, Propert acknowledges. But it plays to her strengths.

"I love to write, and I love to talk. I love showcasing our terrific kids," she said.

Inside her cheerful classroom, Propert's pride in Delsea and its 1,200 students is everywhere. Thick maroon scrapbooks take up an entire shelf of one bookcase, each representing one year's worth of news clips.

Each page is festooned with stickers, brightly colored construction paper, and exuberant phrases: "Wonderful Students Achieving Wonderful Things!" and "Peace, Respect, No Drugs, Delsea!"

Her walls are decorated with photographs, citations she's received, and plaques. One certificate, from a student, lauds Propert "for being a good and caring teacher. And for helping me when I needed a good job."

But she might be packing everything away in June; she's thinking of retiring at the end of the school year.

"There are days that I don't ever want to leave, and there are days when I want to walk out of here at 8 a.m.," said Propert, 56, who lives in Williamstown with her husband, Fred.

During her three decades at the Franklinville school, Propert has taught classes from gifted and talented to remedial. She's been a public speaking teacher and taught about print and broadcast journalism.

There has been plenty of change: technology, for one. And all those years of standing on hard floors have made navigating Delsea's long hallways on foot too difficult, so Propert now uses a motorized scooter, in Delsea red, with lights, a horn, and an apple keychain dangling off the front, to move through the school.

There has been one constant, though.

"I've always loved the kids. I'm close to students that I had my very first year here," she said.

Pupils from far-flung places still visit her, send her presents at the holidays, call to check up on her. And she gets recognized in the strangest places.

"A security guard at a casino comes running up to me and I thought, 'Oh no! What did I do wrong?' When he got in close, I realized it was a former student," she said.

Her face lights up when she talks about what "her kids" have taught her: patience, creativity, and most of all, humor.

"They make me laugh all the time," she said.

That was evident recently in a class for students who didn't pass New Jersey's graduation test in reading and writing skills.

She steered a class of 11 juniors through a writing exercise and discussion of what America means to them.

There was levity - Propert playfully asserting her grammatical authority when one student insisted it was correct to say "my students and me" drew plenty of teasing and hearty laughs all around - but there was also serious discussion.

"Alexis, you wrote that America means duty to you. Tell me more," Propert pressed the class, nodding at Alexis Wilks.

"You have a duty to serve your country. You have to defend your rights," junior Kyle Beemer said. Propert beamed.

Gary Pressley Jr. said Propert and her class were "cool."

"She makes you work. You've got to work. I might not like it, but it will help me in college," Pressley said.

Her students like her, they said, because she's laid-back, because she arranges chairs in a loose rectangle, and sits among them. They like her because they learn persuasive writing through essays about which candy bar is the best and because they learn about sentence fragments by deconstructing sandwiches.

They like her because if she catches them performing a selfless act, she'll reward them with food or a prize from her goody drawer.

They like her because she does whatever she can to get them to love writing, even if it means letting them scrawl on her windows in washable chalk.

Ali LaRosa grew up hearing about Propert - her father, Thomas, was in the first play Propert ever directed. Now she's one of Propert's students.

"You can have fun with Mrs. Propert," Ali said.

Propert's room is a haven for students, and she loves that.

"There's always a few students who would rather be here than anywhere else," she said. "That's what you hope for kids - that they have a place to feel safe, that they enjoy school."


Kristen Graham |

For a photo gallery, go to


Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com. To comment or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/schooltalk.

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