Monica Yant Kinney: Remarkable city school feels squeeze

Cook-Wissahickon's class size swells, key staff is gone, funding lost. Still, it copes.

Posted: September 18, 2011

Barbara Trent has been a teacher for 42 years, including 23 spent corralling cute kindergartners at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary.

To see her in action, a lone adult surrounded by scamps, is to be rendered instantly exhausted. Especially this fall, as schools like Cook contend with Gov. Corbett's budget cuts and the institutional chaos of the Philadelphia School District.

"I had 17 students last year," Trent said wistfully last week when I popped into her remarkably controlled classroom. "I've got 27 now - including 18 boys! I've never had this many kindergartners before."

Regular readers know I've got a soft spot for Cook, a self-made city success story straddling Roxborough and Manayunk.

Five years ago, Cook was shunned by local families who had never stepped inside the building. Then, a combination of hectic commutes and painful tuition bills persuaded skeptical parents to give the neighborhood school a try.

By 2009, the once-languishing institution had 345 diverse, nonviolent, high-achieving students. In 2010, the K-8 enrollment swelled to 430, a surge led by parents now actively searching for homes within the school's boundaries - even those with children still in diapers.

In the spring, Cook's already-engaged parents galvanized around the district's $629 million budget deficit. They started a Facebook group, signed petitions, lobbied legislators, and packed School Reform Commission meetings. They fought for all they hold dear, but prepared for pain the next school year.

The future is now. How did they fare?

The new normal

"We lost our Spanish teacher and librarian," parent Cheryl Dore reports. "And now, the music teacher is here only two days a week."

Cook also said goodbye to an assistant principal, a school police officer, and funding for the intellectually gifted. The guidance counselor must handle more students with no help. Parents cleaned up after Hurricane Irene, since the custodial staff has also taken a hit.

Enviable 20-student classes jumped substantially in size, thanks to an unexpected influx of 100 pupils: 24 from failing schools across the city, 40 volunteer transfers, and 36 neighborhood converts.

"I completely understand why parents select this school," says proud principal Karen Thomas. "They want what's best for their children."

But with 503 students this fall, Cook is nearing building capacity of 550. No one is sure what to do if districtwide closures send more students scurrying to the school.

Maintaining standards will require volunteers and ingenuity. The "Power Hour" after-school tutoring club lost funding. The lunchtime guitar club has 27 donated instruments, but no chief strummer.

Teachers like Trent may seek an extra set of adult hands, Dore says, "or at least people cutting paper at home" for art projects. Amateur librarians will find books galore in need of shelving.

"In the past, we asked parents to volunteer at fund-raising events and with our art program," explains Home and School President Carol Haslam. "Now, we're asking for ongoing weekly commitments."

But many parents work. And those who step up may be asked to dig even deeper: Classroom volunteers need $20 background checks.

Early reviews?

Jo-Ann Rogan has one son in a disappointingly reconfigured special-needs class and another in a "crowded" kindergarten room.

"It has been a tough few weeks," she said.

But if Waseem Talbert, 12, has noticed change at Cook, it hasn't dampened his drive. He's the first student in ages who walked up to me and asked confidently, "Can my name be in your newspaper?"

Lurae Brinkley tells me she moved her son to Cook five years ago from a North Philadelphia school where "he wasn't being challenged." She's still thrilled.

"Waseem is an A and B student," Brinkley praises. "At Cook, they keep him busy and give him extra work. That's what I like."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com,

or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog

at philly.com/blinq.

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