At Radnor High, a look at 'what schools should be'

Radnor High's Jillian Hughes, who donates to a city school, chats with a classmate.
Radnor High's Jillian Hughes, who donates to a city school, chats with a classmate. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: January 13, 2014

RADNOR Jillian Hughes attends a public school with 22 Advanced Placement courses, 96 percent of students going on to college or trade school, and a sense of community so strong that 300 students formed a club just to turn up and cheer at school sporting events.

"We have everything we need," Hughes, 15, said of Radnor High.

Moved by the Philadelphia School District's extraordinary budget crunch and the wide gulf between her own education and that of city students, Hughes recently gathered and distributed supplies for pupils at one Philadelphia elementary school. Now, she's collecting warm clothes for students and plans to keep up and possibly expand her efforts.

Time spent at Radnor High underscores the gap that moved Hughes: the dichotomy between Philadelphia and strong suburban districts such as Lower Merion, Council Rock, and Tredyffrin/Easttown.

It's the difference between students with constant access to counselors and nurses and students without those services always guaranteed; between a school with myriad after-school opportunities and those with few; between teachers with ample supplies and those who have to go begging for copier paper.

Viewed through the lens of the Philadelphia School District's budget straits, Radnor seems extraordinary.

"But we don't live in excess here," said Mark Schellenger, Radnor's principal for the last eight years. "We and schools like us are what schools should be."

On a recent day, Hughes, a poised, polite sophomore, took a visitor on a tour of the school - the wide hallways, the popular, well-equipped library, the counseling suite where five counselors and two assistants serve the school's nearly 1,200 students.

"The sense of community in Radnor is so, so strong," said Hughes, a member of the school's crew team who has also participated in the school's chapter of the Future Business Leaders of America.

Radnor High has more than 70 clubs, from a group devoted to anime to the Radnor Ruckus, a band of students that exists solely to attend school sporting events and cheer on the home team.

The halls are orderly. The school is clean and well-maintained, with expansive athletic fields on campus. There are enough adults in the building.

"Teachers and kids have great relationships," Schellenger said. "We trust them, and they know that."

School-issued iPads

Inside Hughes' Advanced Placement world history class - a new course this year, offered to sophomores - students gathered in groups to work on projects about Islam in the postclassical era. They had used their school-issued iPads (all Radnor sophomores and juniors have them) to make movies, then uploaded them to a class YouTube page for presentation to the group of 24 students.

Two adults, teacher Colleen Myers and librarian Michelle Wetzel, who also serves as a technology specialist, circulated, helping spur discussions and troubleshoot any problems.

The students' projects were sophisticated, with well-written text and sharp visuals. That's the expectation from classes at Radnor: Students write, and collaborate, at a high level.

Wetzel, whose library is full of up-to-date books and periodicals, has two clerks and student volunteers to aid her work.

"I am so lucky to work here," she said.

In a way, comparing Radnor and Philadelphia schools is comparing apples and oranges. Radnor students, by and large, aren't coping with homelessness, hunger, or the trauma of seeing someone they know get shot.

They generally come to school ready to learn. From a young age, they are told that they are expected to succeed, to go to college - and most do. Ninety-nine percent of Radnor students graduate, 96 percent go on to college or trade school, 91 percent to a four-year college. When they get to college, they are prepared for the challenge.

Engaging parents is tough in urban schools. At Radnor, "our back-to-school night is so crowded from a parking perspective that parents are now asking to do it over two nights," Schellenger said.

In some Philadelphia schools, every student lives in poverty. At Radnor High, less than 10 percent do, a fact that is not lost on the principal.

"Philadelphia schools aren't bad schools," he said. "There, you have childhood poverty. If you eradicate that, those schools will get better in a second."

Money differences

Funding, of course, underpins everything.

Philadelphia's School Reform Commission runs the district but has no control over its funding - it cannot raise taxes.

Suburban districts such as Radnor receive state aid, but fund the bulk of their budget through property taxes, which means a great deal in this Main Line community. For this school year, Radnor was even able to cut taxes while maintaining its high level of programming.

In Philadelphia, about half of the $2.4 billion budget comes from state aid. Because property values are not nearly as high as they are in wealthy suburban communities, aid from local, state, and federal sources becomes much more crucial, and when it is cut, the consequences are dramatic.

In 2011-12, the last year for which figures are available, Philadelphia had $5,766 less per pupil than Radnor to educate needier students: spending was $18,117 per student in Radnor, $12,351 per student in Philadelphia, according to state data. (The gap is almost certainly larger now, given Philadelphia's sharp budget cuts.)

The cry for reforming Pennsylvania's public school funding is getting louder, particularly in Philadelphia. And that is likely to continue.

But for now, what Hughes sees is this: She has a lot, and the kids at Andrew Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia swarmed her with hugs and thanks when she dropped off backpacks for them.

"I have the benefit of resources here," Schellenger said. "They're a few miles down the road, and you might as well be on the other side of the world."

215-854-5146 @newskag


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