A mentor's footsteps

Posted: June 05, 2013

FROM THE REAR OF Terry Saskin's seventh-grade math class in Logan, a slender girl piped up.

"I still don't know how to do this," she said.

"Well, if you listen, I'm going to tell you," responded Saskin, 42.

The husky, high-energy teacher began explaining how to determine the surface area of a shape, when a boy in the front row offered: "Is it, like, pi times the diameter divided by two?"

Two floors below, Maurice Allen, 25, was teaching a kindergarten class, the door decorated to look like a bear's cave.

"Who can tell me which president is on the penny?" Allen asked.

"Abraham Lincoln!" 15 tiny voices shouted.

"Who is on the nickel?"

"George Washington?" asked a few tentative voices. One boy said quietly but firmly: "Thomas Jefferson."

It was a rainy afternoon at the K-8 Birney Preparatory Academy Charter School, and although they were two floors apart and with different age groups, the two teachers share a bond that has spanned more than a decade.

A dozen years ago, Allen was a 12-year-old pupil in Saskin's sixth-grade class at Luis Munoz-Marin Elementary School, at 3rd and Ontario streets in Kensington.

In the predominantly Latino school, Saskin said, the white teacher and the African-American adolescent "stood out like sore thumbs."

But more than physical appearance made Allen stand out. "He was really smart," Saskin said. "He wrote better in the sixth grade than some adults do."

'I have the perfect guy'

As fate would have it, Saskin and Allen started working at Birney Prep, on Lindley Avenue near 9th Street, on the same day - Dec. 10, 2012.

Right after Saskin was interviewed by Bernard James, the school's chief administrative officer, James mentioned he was also seeking a teacher for kindergarten or first grade.

"I told him, 'I have the perfect guy for you,' " Saskin recalled.

Allen, who lives not far from the school, decided to become a teacher because of Saskin's influence.

"It wasn't like a student-teacher relationship," Allen said. "He was like a big brother."

Allen said that although he had a stepfather, it was pretty cool to have a male teacher.

"He made school fun, a whole lot of fun," Allen said of Saskin. "He used to make everyone laugh."

And he was accessible. "Everybody in the class had his cellphone number," Allen recalled. "Anyone could reach him if they needed him."

There were also trips to Sixers games. Or to the movies. And sometimes Phillies games.

"I would call up the Sixers and tell them I was teaching in an inner-city school and would like to reward them by taking them to a game," Saskin recalled.

Saskin, who lives in Bensalem, spent his youth focused on weightlifting and martial arts. He studied exercise physiology in college and worked in a gym before returning to college to become a teacher.

Saskin, who is divorced with two children, said he also always considered Allen a son.

Allen had graduated from Cheyney University in May 2012 and was teaching at a preschool when Saskin called him to tell him to contact James for a teaching job at Birney.

At Cheyney, Allen said, he realized that young boys, especially African-American boys, need to see more male teachers in their early years in school.

"I had never had a male teacher until Mr. Saskin," said Allen, who considers Saskin his mentor.

Saskin, a frequent letter-writer to newspapers, often wrote to criticize those who argued that black students would learn best if the district hired more black teachers.

"Students pay attention and learn if you stimulate their intellect, not because you share an ethnic background," he wrote in a letter published in the Daily News in April 2009.

Birney was a traditional public school until it was taken over last year by Mosaica Education, a for-profit education-management company. James said about 45 percent of its teachers are men.

Both teachers have exceeded expectations, James said. "They both bring energy and a great flair to their teaching," he said.

Saskin has boosted students' math scores, James said. And Allen, he said, is "just a fantastic teacher. He has a lot of energy, lots of creativity."

Bringing baseball

In his first year at Birney, Allen hasn't been shy about making a difference, James said.

Allen began to love baseball when he was at Munoz-Marin Elementary and later started a baseball team at Cheyney.

After bonding with seventh- and eighth-grade boys whom he helped to chaperone on a trip to Washington, D.C., to see President Obama's second inauguration in January, Allen started a baseball team at Birney for the middle-school students.

"When he decided to start a baseball team here at the academy, every one of those youngsters he chaperoned wanted to join the team," James said.

"Even my little kids want me to coach them in baseball," Allen said.

Now, the seventh-graders on the Birney baseball team have Allen's phone number.

"They call me any time there are things they want to talk about and it's confidential," Allen said. "That's the same thing Mr. Saskin did for me."

Already, Allen said, one of his kindergarten students told him that he, too, wants to be a teacher.

"One day I hope I have a kid who will come to me and say, 'Mr. Allen, I'm a teacher because of you, and you inspired me.' "

As Allen spoke, Saskin listened. The tough-guy weightlifter/martial artist let go of his bravado, and tears welled up in his eyes.

On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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