All about new beginnings

Obama delivers speech for the kids

Posted: September 09, 2009

EILEEN COUTTS practically bounced up and down the brightly lit hallways of Samuel Fels High School, greeting uniformed students as they rushed past her yesterday.

Her face lit up as she spotted one teen who was visibly upset.

"Why aren't you smiling?" asked Coutts, Fels' principal.

"They have me down for two classes I took in summer school," the student replied as she handed Coutts her roster.

Coutts skimmed the sheet, then directed the teen to an office. But before handing back the paper, Coutts told her: "First you have to smile."

As the teen walked away, Coutts said the student had plenty to smile about: a new school year, a new building and high expectations.

Mayor Nutter and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman welcomed students to the newly built, $80 million high school, on Langdon Street near Sanger, in Oxford Circle.

Ackerman began her day at the home of Fels freshman Mo' Naire Walker, 14. She walked with him to school, attended a bell-ringing ceremony to mark the first day, then addressed the student body alongside other officials.

She ended her day at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, 6th and Duncannon streets, to hear Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, speak and to watch President Obama's televised address to students nationwide.

As part of a five-year, $1.5 billion capital program, Fels is one of two new high schools to open this year. Abraham Lincoln High School, at Ryan and Rowland avenues, in the Northeast, is the other.

"It's just overwhelming," Coutts said after listening to Ackerman, Nutter and other officials address the school's 1,500 students.

"They deserve this. They worked without heat, electricity. This is a dream come true. Northeast [High] may have a TV show, but this is the dream."

Coutts was referring to the high school where actor Tony Danza is co-teaching a sophomore English class for the A&E reality show "Teach."

A district spokesman said that Danza's first day went smoothly.

The new Fels boasts 44 instruction classrooms and 28 specialized-instruction classrooms, which include computer and science labs, a black-box theater, television studio, and art and dance studios. The school also has a six-lane indoor pool, a 7,300-square-foot library, a 1,500-seat gym and two indoor courtyards.

But for all its recent praise, the school has had a bad rap.

For two straight years, Fels was identified as one of the state's persistently dangerous schools.

Senior Jethro Petit-Frere, 17, of Feltonville, said that he won't allow the school's recent history to dissuade him.

"It's thrilling," he said after shaking Nutter's hand. "I'm always motivated, but this is kind of a push."

A parade of city and district officials appealed to the students yesterday.

Ackerman charged students to stay focused on their academics.

Councilwoman Marian Tasco urged students to care for the new facility as if it were their own home.

School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie emphasized the district's and the commission's focus on student success.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told the students: "You are going to create such history . . . your future is inside this building."

Later, Ackerman spoke with parents at a reception in the school's cafeteria, where she stressed the importance of their involvement.

"Go to the schools, because you need to see what your child is doing," she said. "Stay involved in school all the way through. I believe in you, parents."

Since taking the helm of the district in June 2008, Ackerman has pledged to provide more resources to parents.

A parent ombudsman has been placed in every school, and Parent University, a center where adults can take classes, will start soon, she said.

District officials also say that this year's school opening saw the lowest teacher-vacancy rate in recent years.

Twenty-four positions are waiting to be filled, down from 146 at the start of school last year, and 38 from last Thursday, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

At Thurgood Marshall, Sebelius reiterated precautions on how to slow the spread of swine flu, and said that there would be enough vaccines for those who want them.

One parent, Porsha Colter-Marshall, was especially concerned about the illness because her son, Malik Marshall-Craig, 13, an eighth-grader, has sickle-cell anemia.

"He's susceptible more so than healthy students," she said. "With his sickness, he has to be careful."

Thurgood Marshall is one of 118 district schools out of 267 that made "adequate yearly progress," a measurement of the No Child Left Behind Act, last year, for the second striaght year, said Edward Penn, the school's principal.

Penn praised the president's message of embracing education.

"President Obama's remarks really set the tone for the school," he said. "It will constantly remind students to do their best."

"Did you learn anything?" Colter-Marshall asked her 13-year-old son.

"Yes," he said. "It's fine to make mistakes, but as long as you fix your mistakes and make sure you have a healthy body, you could go to school."

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