Russell Byers Charter School guides students long after they graduate

At Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia, counselor Miriam Filvarof jokes with Ryan Francis, 18, as she helps him fill out college-application forms.
At Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia, counselor Miriam Filvarof jokes with Ryan Francis, 18, as she helps him fill out college-application forms. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 16, 2012

The second graders who trooped into the Russell Byers Charter School when it opened 10 years ago are getting ready to collect their high school diplomas in June.

Although the Center City school enrolls elementary students, its responsibilities don't end after sixth grade.

Through its innovative "Ours for Life" program, the charter keeps tabs on alumni and helps them navigate high school placements, SATs, and the thicket of college applications.

School founder Laurada Byers said the program stems from a mission of giving students "the roots of a strong education while they are with us, and the wings to succeed long after they've left us."

Byers opened the charter school in 2001 to honor her late husband, Russell Byers, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist and education advocate who was killed in an attempted robbery in Chestnut Hill in 1999.

Funded by taxpayers, the school at 1911 Arch St. enrolls 442 children from 4-year-old kindergarten through sixth grade. It follows an expeditionary-learning approach. Students spend 12 weeks on in-depth investigations of topics that link academic subjects to real-world concerns. They conduct field work, do hands-on projects, and interview experts.

For a recent study on houses, kindergartners met residents from a homeless shelter, performed a play at LOVE Park about being homeless, and then raised $4,000 from the crowd for the shelter.

The school consistently meets state academic benchmarks. But Byers said the charter also tried to produce learners who are engaged, curious, outgoing, thoughtful, and involved in their communities.

"We're not just educating great test-takers; we're educating great human beings," she said. "And the more important measure of success is who is graduating from high school, who's getting into college, and who's staying there. Ultimately, that will be the measure and not the test scores."

The Ours for Life program provides mentors who introduce students to careers and colleges; helps parents find spots at magnet, charter, and private schools for middle grades and high school; and offers college guidance.

Miriam Filvarof, who has a master's degree in counseling, became the charter's first "college coach" in the fall. The room where she meets with students and their families is stocked with college information and has a computer and printer for them to use to do research and complete applications.

Counselors, Filvarof said, rarely have a chance to work with students over their entire school careers. "This is so forward-looking," she said.

Approximately 80 percent of the 33 alumni who are now high school seniors already have college acceptance letters.

Filvarof's salary and the costs of other alumni programs are paid by the Byerschool Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to support the school and provides some aid for alumni at private schools.

Byers, foundation president and CEO, said a donor gave $20,000 for college scholarships that the foundation has matched. Ten scholarships will be awarded.

"For the alumni to be able to participate in the scholarship programs, they have to have given back," she said. "There is definitely a volunteer, service component."

Ryan Francis, 18, a senior at Science Leadership Academy, a district magnet school, began meeting regularly with Filvarof in February. He said she helped him and his mother, Michele Jackson, keep on track with college applications and daunting financial-aid forms.

"This is the first time we're going through this as a family," said Francis, who hopes to study graphic design at Drexel University. "Miss Miriam has helped us . . . I feel like I'm more prepared."

Jackson said the counselor was always accessible.

"It was like an open-door policy if you had questions and concerns," she said. "We had her cellphone number, and she did not mind us calling on weekends. We even called her on Easter."

It may be unusual for an elementary school to help alumni apply to college, but Jackson was not surprised the Byers charter did it.

"It seems like Laurada always thinks outside the box," she said. Byers, she said, checks to make sure alumni are comfortable and doing well after they leave.

Her son has remained involved, as well. "He wants to give back to the school because he sees it is a lifeline they extend," Jackson said.

The Ours for Life program reflects the philosophy that prompts Byers to visit schools alumni attend and go to their eighth-grade - and now high school - graduations.

"These students - some more, some less - have been a part of my life," Byers said. "It's quite personal. I hope it will always be personal."


Contact Martha Woodall

at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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