Frustrations and determination at S. Phila. school

Principal Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan helps second graders with a scavenger hunt designed to help them get to know classmates at Andrew Jackson School.
Principal Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan helps second graders with a scavenger hunt designed to help them get to know classmates at Andrew Jackson School. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 11, 2013

At 9:10 a.m. Monday, Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, principal of Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia, stepped into the first-grade classroom, crammed with 36 first graders.

"Boys and girls, I know it's real crowded in here. Ms. Kaplan is going to try to get another teacher so you can have some room to spread out and learn," Kaplan promised on her visits to classrooms throughout the three-story, 500-student school.

It was just one of many situations that drew the principal's attention on the first day of school in Philadelphia. The bench in her front office was filled with parents and children there to register. A group of parents approached her in the school yard: Why are classes so big? What was she going to do about it?

Several special-education students didn't get their ride to school from the district; she'd have to fix that by Tuesday. One of her favorite bus monitors was being transferred out.

And she couldn't forget about the students who needed their medication.

"One pill at noon," Kaplan said, reading the directions, as she arranged pill bottles on her desk. "I'm also the nurse."

Kaplan - who has worked for the School District for more than 30 years as a teacher and a principal, and who was named one of seven district principals of the year last spring - deftly juggled it all.

"But I don't know if I can keep this momentum up all year," she said. "I'm good now, but it's the first day."

She told her staff via walkie-talkie: "I'm going to need all hands on deck."

There were far fewer hands this year - no full-time counselor, four fewer teachers despite a spike in enrollment of nearly 100 students, and fewer aides.

Kaplan, however, was aided by community volunteers, laid-off workers who came in anyway - and a teenager from the suburbs. Jillian Hughes, 15, a Radnor High School sophomore, had collected 426 backpacks stuffed with supplies to donate to students. (Her church congregation and former Eagles star Brian Westbrook helped buy the supplies.) On the school yard Monday morning, Hughes, along with her father and her pastor, handed out the backpacks.

"It just really upset me that the school was losing so many things," Hughes said. In Radnor, "we have more than what we need."

The Jackson school, with pre-K to eighth grade, has attracted lots of outside support. Its home and school association recently raised $127,000 from an anonymous donor for a new playground and program. The school's music teacher, Chris Argerakis, runs an 11-member student rock band called Home and plays for Jackson donations. The school has partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University, Swarthmore College, and other places, all helping to provide the extras that the School District's deficit-plagued budget can't cover.

But all of the outside help couldn't stave off this year's large class sizes for Jackson teachers.

"I want to know how they're going to pay attention with all these kids in the class," Ashley Harrington, parent of twin second graders in a class of 32 students, said to Kaplan in the school yard.

Another parent wanted to know whether Kaplan planned to split the fifth-grade class, with 36 students, into two.

"You know, guys, I am leading the charge to get some more help," Kaplan said. "I've requested three additional teachers."

Lisa Katzer, the fifth-grade teacher, said her class includes a child who speaks no English and several with special needs. Last year, when her class was about half the size, she divided the children into five groups of four, rotating among them and giving individual attention.

"Thirty-six kids," she said of her new class. "What is that, nine groups of four? How am I getting to nine individual groups? You run out of time."

By midmorning, Leigh Anne Clark, a School District operations manager, showed up to see if Kaplan needed her help. Clark was one of dozens of district staffers making rounds Monday to schools across the city.

"I had several students who did not get picked up," Kaplan told her, "if you can work on that issue."

Clark agreed to help with that and more.

"I don't know we can cure everything, but we will prioritize," Clark said.

Peter Zadro, a school counselor, arrived around 11. Jackson, like many other schools, had lost its full-time counselor to the district's budget cuts. Now it will share Zadro with seven other schools.

He'll have to rove.

"It's certainly not ideal," Zadro said later. "But I'm going to give it my best shot. I'm anticipating it will be much slower in terms of building rapport and relationships."

As noon approached, Kaplan returned to the medicines on her desk. "Does he take it with food or without?" she asked aloud.

Carol Shipley, a noontime aide whose hours were cut to four per day, should have left nearly an hour earlier. Now she was working free.

"I'm not going to leave her," Shipley said, pointing at the principal, whose wall behind her desk featured the words Happiness, Harmony and Dreams.

Kaplan was appreciative of all who pitched in Monday, but knew such an outpouring couldn't last.

"That's not sustainable, but we made it through our first day," she said about 4 p.m. "Knock on wood. It was all good."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at www.inquirer.com/campusinq.

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