How one hardworking student thrives at Bartram

Posted: April 14, 2014

Gionna Hawkins is 14, a smart young lady with serious goals and a detailed plan for pulling them off - class president, then internships, college, and law school.

She is accustomed to concerned looks when she tells people the school she attends: Bartram High, infamous for fights and chaos and a "conflict resolution specialist" lying facedown on the floor, knocked out by a student.

"People only see the crazy stuff, but that's not all of us," Gionna said. "We do have bright, intelligent students. Nobody's dumb at this school."

Gionna has taken advantage of everything Bartram has to offer. She's a cheerleader and freshman class president. She helps lead an afterschool program focusing on music, art, and fashion. Her schedule is packed with honors courses, and her friends know she is a stickler for proper spelling and good grammar.

Her philosophy - "as long as you have your goals and you go straight to class, nothing happens" - has served her well.

But for a month she has had no science teacher, and her math teacher's door has been broken three times by unruly students. Since September, three of her cellphones have been stolen. She can't take textbooks home, and some of the books she uses in class are torn and graffitied.

Freshman year got off to a rough start for Gionna. Girls she had never met tried to start trouble. They told her they would jump her.

She told her mother, and Dawn Hawkins went straight to school administrators. Dawn Hawkins was polite but firm - what was happening to her daughter was unacceptable.

Gionna, who has not been bothered since, is clear-eyed enough to know that having a parent who sets rules, expects good grades, and shows up at school is an advantage many of her classmates don't have.

"My mom, she's not the loud parent," said Gionna, a long-limbed, slender girl with braces and a single braid down her shoulder. "She doesn't yell, but she knows how to talk. She's a receptionist, so she has to."

The adults at Bartram are doing their best, Dawn Hawkins, 36, said, but they are overwhelmed.

"It starts at home," she said. "The parents should be accountable for their children. If that starts to happen, maybe the kids will change."

Students come to Bartram angry, Gionna Hawkins said. In her math class, the same one where a door has been repeatedly broken, a few disruptive teens curse out the teacher.

"People just want attention," she said. "I say, 'If you wouldn't do these things in front of your parents, don't do it in front of your teacher.' "

It can be tough to focus when outsiders burst in, or when a few classmates refuse to settle down and learn, she said. That wears down teachers and demoralizes the rest of the class, the majority of whom who view school as more than a place to cause trouble.

"Everbody's upset; nobody's going to function," she said. "When you know that the school is already bad, you start slacking a little bit."

Until Alphonso Stevenson was knocked unconscious and the news stories piled on in late March, students knew the school was understaffed. It had lost its principal of a decade and other staff, but picked up 100 students from a closed school. It was easy to start trouble in the cavernous old building.

But when Gionna Hawkins was picked to represent Bartram at a student meeting with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., she heard similar stories from other schools, she said.

"We're all going through the same thing since the staff cuts, the budget problems of last year," she said. "There aren't enough counselors."

On Friday, a formation of school and city police stood at the entrance to the school at 67th Street and Elmwood Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia. Ozzie Wright, the retired district principal and Army captain brought in to help settle Bartram, was in constant motion. The halls were freshly painted, and crews were working on other building improvements.

But before the assault on Stevenson, the officers were stretched too thin, Gionna said. In addition to keeping order, they are charged with unlocking doors for students who needed to use the bathroom during the hours that lavatories are kept locked.

She is philosophical about the influx of officers to the 1,100-student school.

"It looks like a prison," she said without a trace of self-pity. "But we need it for right now. Maybe the kids will see it and get the picture, that the cops are here, and they're trying to change the school."

Though Gionna gets good grades, all A's except for a C in algebra, and has plenty of support at home, Dawn Hawkins, a single mother, worries about academics. Even with honors classes, Gionna always completes all of her homework in less than an hour. And with no science teacher, her daughter spends those class periods completing worksheets.

"They're teaching themselves with these packets," Dawn Hawkins said. "I guess they can't get a teacher, because who wants to come there? They're maybe afraid for their lives."

After the three thefts, Dawn Hawkins stopped sending her daughter to school with a cellphone. That's unnerving - Dawn Hawkins works full time, so her daughter must take a 10-minute trolley ride to and from school.

"I have to just pray that she gets home, and she can call me from home," Dawn Hawkins said. "You're supposed to send your kids off to learn, and hope they get a good education. But now, you never know who's going to get hurt, and whether it's going to be your kid."

She has thought about trying to get her daughter placed at another school. But the teen with the easy smile thinks she wants to stick it out at Bartram.

"And I guess they need kids like that," her mother said.

Gionna Hawkins has ideas about how to fix Bartram. Beyond the police officers, she says more extracurricular activities would help.

"I want a debate team so bad," she said. "I think I would be pretty good at it."

But debate team or not, she's going to stick to her plan, seizing every chance to shine.

The day Alphonso Stevenson suffered a fractured skull, she walked past him on her way to an event. Paramedics were about to rush him to a hospital. Gionna couldn't believe it, and said the event has been a line dividing the year into before and after.

"When that incident happened, I said, 'I'm just going to stay to myself,' " she said. "I'm going to be OK. I want to do great."


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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