Greater involvement by community and staff fills gaps at Phila. school

Tilden Principal Jonas Crenshaw (right) and mentor Sekou Kamara. "Either you can sit back and complain . . . or you can be proactive and take ownership of your school," Crenshaw says.
Tilden Principal Jonas Crenshaw (right) and mentor Sekou Kamara. "Either you can sit back and complain . . . or you can be proactive and take ownership of your school," Crenshaw says. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 27, 2012

Tilden Middle School lost teachers to budget cuts this year. It lost a secretary, noontime aides, and money to pay staffers for before- and after-school programs.

But the school at 66th and Elmwood in Southwest Philadelphia picked up a grief-counseling program. It maintained extracurriculars, mentoring and truancy-prevention programs, tutors, and a host of other "extras" that help teachers focus on instruction and keep students coming to school.

The secret? Robust community partnerships. A dedicated staff that helps make decisions about how the school runs. A principal who's overseeing a turnaround, who feels that he can't let a lack of money strip Tilden of needed resources.

As the public funding devoted to education dwindles, Tilden's way seems a new model of keeping needed services in schools.

"Either you can sit back and complain and make excuses for not having money, or you can be proactive and take ownership of your school," said Jonas Crenshaw, who's in his second year as principal.

Tilden's needs are considerable. It's in a tough neighborhood, with 91 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged, with sizable special-education and English-language learner populations.

In his first year, Crenshaw, who came to Philadelphia from Mississippi, focused on climate and letting the staff, students, and community know he was serious about change. Last summer, he and counselor Nina Nagib concentrated on identifying new partnerships - an effort that continues.

Teachers say it's making a difference. Most used to leave when school let out, said Yvonne Shervington, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher who has been at the school since 2000. Now, she said, they want to stay.

"They say to be a teacher, you have to be a nurse, a social worker, everything," Shervington said. "Now that the supports are here, we can be in the classroom more. It feels like a whole new school."

The first time assistant superintendent Lissa Johnson arrived at Tilden this school year - her first time overseeing the school since 2005 - she was delighted by the physical transformation.

"I said, 'Oh my gosh, the grounds are beautiful!' There's mulch and flowers," Johnson said. "And it's different inside, too."

Make no mistake - Tilden's academics still lag, Johnson said. In 2011, 28 percent of its students met state standards in reading and 40 percent hit math goals.

But things are changing.

Crenshaw, Johnson said, "is at the forefront of what we talk about all the time - we struggle to get parents and communities involved at the middle and high school level, but at Tilden, it's being done."

Evelyn Doughty, who's been inside Tilden since 2007 as part of the Philadelphia Prevention Partnership's Queens in Training mentorship program, has seen the changes.

"I always felt like there was a need for the community to be involved, but it wasn't such a welcoming place," said Doughty, whose program operates at no cost to the school.

All but one of the dozen-plus community resources is free to Tilden, in fact. Crenshaw opts to pay about $35,000 to City Year, an AmeriCorps program that provides nine full-time adults for help with tutoring, small-group instruction, after-school programs, and climate support.

Elise Gaul of the Center for Grieving Children is about to offer an eight-week grief-support program at Tilden, with an eye toward workshops for staff and grief support for community members. The nonprofit does not charge for its services.

"We could be at other schools, but we felt welcome here," Gaul said. "Other schools didn't want us in their space. The culture of the school matters so much."

Community partnerships matter, but Crenshaw is quick to point out all his staff also does - tutoring, chaperoning events, arriving early so students have a safe place to go in the morning, even sometimes walking students home - without pay.

How much does the staff care?

Gloria Johnson was a school secretary until she was laid off from Tilden in December. She still shows up every day, now as a volunteer - having an office that runs smoothly helps the whole school, she said.

"This is family," Johnson said. "If my sister needed me, I wouldn't stop helping her because she didn't have money, and this is the same. I don't feel like the children should suffer just because you cut the funding. They still need an education."

She's not the only one. A school police officer who was laid off still volunteers at Tilden, too.

What about the students?

Under Crenshaw, school is different, seventh grader Briannah Smith said - kids who act out know there are consequences. It's easy to learn.

And there are opportunities, too, Briannah and classmate Saviona Good said. The girls, members of Queens in Training, are learning more than math and reading.

"We're going to be smart young ladies who get educated and go places," Saviona said. "We learn how to believe in ourselves."

Sounds about right to Crenshaw.

"My goal," he said, "is to make sure that Tilden - even though it's a neighborhood school - can offer services and a quality of education that can rival any private or charter school."

Contact Kristen Graham

at 215-854-5146,, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

If you're interested in joining the "Friends of Tilden" campaign - committing to speak to a class, mentor or tutor students, chaperoning an event, or donating money - contact principal Jonas Crenshaw at 215-492-6454.

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