Young Philadelphia family's choice reflects faith in its public school

Mark Scott and son Henry at E.M. Stanton Elementary, where Henry will start this year.
Mark Scott and son Henry at E.M. Stanton Elementary, where Henry will start this year. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 09, 2012

Henry Scott's first day of school will be a big deal.

And not just because the 6-year-old is planning on "learning new things, like math and how to read," in first grade.

Henry's first day matters because his parents could have sent him to private school. They could have moved to the suburbs. They could even have sent him to the highly regarded Independence Charter School in Center City, where he had a spot waiting.

But Jill and Mark Scott chose E.M. Stanton at 17th and Christian Streets, their neighborhood public school, for Henry.

"Everyone kind of assumes they can't send their kid to the neighborhood school, but they've never stepped inside," said Jill Anastasi Scott, a clinical therapist and social worker. "We are really gung-ho on Stanton."

The Southwest Center City school has a lot going for it: robust community partnerships, strong test scores, a stable faculty, students who largely go on to the city's special admissions high schools. It has real challenges, too - 90 percent of its students come from low-income families, the Philadelphia School District is still reeling from a financial crisis, and the school beat back a district attempt to close it last year.

But the neighborhood is betting on Stanton. And on Tuesday, dozens of volunteers - including Henry Scott and his father, Mark - showed up to brighten the building with paint and elbow grease.

A volunteer from the Goldenberg Group, a local developer, helped principal Stacey Burnley coordinate the work, paid for with outside donations of more than $3,000. The district sent in maintenance crews in advance of Tuesday's job to freshen up another section of the building.

"It's a minimal budget for the impact," Burnley said. "So many children's lives will be affected by this work. It sets a tone."

Pop tunes poured out of a boom box while Burnley wandered from classroom to classroom, chatting up the teachers, neighbors, parents, and other volunteers who dabbed bright yellows and blues onto a kindergarten room's walls and rolled a vivid green onto those of the main office.

This has been a very different summer from last year, when Burnley was new to the job and bracing for Stanton to close. The school was placed on a list for possible closure because district officials said it was too old and too small.

A strong effort from the "Supporters of Stanton," though, helped convince the School Reform Commission that Stanton should be replicated, not closed. And the school continues on the upswing.

Stanton will add one first-grade and one second-grade class in September, growing by about 60 students to 290.

But perhaps most significant, several of those students will be coming from the surrounding, gentrifying neighborhood.

Henry Scott is one of them. Worried about Stanton's possible closure, Mark and Jill Scott sent their son to Christopher Columbus Charter School for kindergarten. Once it got a reprieve, they were set on Stanton, but then a first-grade spot opened at Independence Charter, a school viewed by many parents as one of the best in Philadelphia.

Mark Scott, a real estate developer who had been active in the Stanton supporters group, called Burnley to explain his dilemma. She told him to do what was best for Henry.

Jill Scott asked people she respected why they should choose Independence. They talked about a strong curriculum, an abundance of arts opportunities, a caring staff, involved parents - all things the Scotts found at Stanton, where they had already attended community events, planted trees, and met the people who would teach Henry.

"Mark sent me an e-mail a few hours later and said, 'We choose Stanton.' I had tears in my eyes," Burnley said.

Mark Scott knows that some people are still wary of Stanton, which they view as old (it is, built in 1925) and unsafe (it's not, with virtually no serious incidents.) He knows there's some risk involved in his family's choice. But he says that no school is perfect and that Stanton is the best option for Henry.

"The most important thing to making this neighborhood fantastic is more and more people choosing the public school," Mark Scott said.

Karrie Gavin paused from her painting to approach Mark Scott. Gavin, who lives nearby, is the mother of a 2-year-old son, and she's starting to think about kindergarten.

A Realtor, Gavin said she had "helped a lot of people move into this neighborhood, and then out of it when their kids are school age. But I grew up in Philadelphia public schools and would love to send my kids here."

Mark Scott nodded.

"Regardless of whether you end up here, know you have an option," he said. "You don't have to move."

Across the city, community groups have sprung up to support a number of district schools, including Chester Arthur, Bache-Martin, Jackson, and Lea. But Stanton's has the advantage of years of stability at the school and a strong, consistent core of community support.

"And that core can move mountains," Burnley said.

As a board member of the South of South Neighborhood Association, Betty Seymour is aware of the significance of the Scotts' choice of Stanton.

"This," Seymour said, carefully placing yellow paint on a cafeteria wall, "is what Philadelphia as a whole needs to do - to convince people that public schools can be good schools."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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