A top student at Bartram heads to a new challenge

Gionna Hawkins on her first day at West Catholic Preparatory High School after leaving Bartram High School. She was aided by a scholarship.
Gionna Hawkins on her first day at West Catholic Preparatory High School after leaving Bartram High School. She was aided by a scholarship. (DAWN HAWKINS)
Posted: April 30, 2014

When Bartram High School officials wanted to showcase the kind of hardworking student the troubled school can produce, they knew where to turn: Gionna Hawkins.

On Friday, Hawkins spent her last day at Bartram, which has been in the news recently for violence and dysfunction.

On Monday, the 14-year-old freshman profiled by The Inquirer this month enrolled at West Catholic Preparatory High School.

Hawkins thought she wanted to stick it out at Bartram, where a staffer was knocked unconscious by a student in March. Her mother, Dawn, knew that the Philadelphia School District needed strong students like her daughter to help anchor its tough schools.

"But I couldn't pass up an opportunity like this," Dawn Hawkins said Monday. "She's going to get a better education, and she's going to be safe."

Bartram's losing a bright light like Gionna Hawkins is emblematic of a growing problem in the district: many of the good kids who can get out are getting out.

After the Inquirer story, numerous readers reached out to Hawkins. A lawyer wants to mentor her. Another wants to send her to summer camp.

And West Catholic officials contacted Dawn Hawkins to say they thought her daughter belonged there. Gionna spent a day shadowing a West Catholic student and came home animated, her mother said.

"She said, 'Mom, the kids are like me,' " Dawn Hawkins said.

The 300-student school at 45th and Chestnut Streets has produced eight winners of the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which gives students full tuition awards from undergraduate degree to doctorate, if they choose to go that far. West Catholic senior Sadiyah Malcom was named the school's most recent winner.

West Catholic, where tuition is $7,700 annually for non-Catholics, offered enough of a scholarship to make it financially feasible for Dawn Hawkins, a single mother who works as a receptionist in Center City.

When Dawn Hawkins got the news of the scholarship, she burst into happy tears.

"I'm finally not crying today," she said. "This is such a good opportunity for Gionna."

Gionna could have started at West Catholic in September, but mother and daughter agreed that she should enroll immediately.

Rashana Miller, West Catholic's associate admissions director, said she felt like she knew Gionna when she read story about her. Gionna refused to be defined by her school's trouble, and wanted people to know that Bartram had more students who came to class to learn than troublemakers.

"The thing that struck me was her resilience," said Miller, a 1998 alumna of the school. "That's the type of kid we have here - resilient kids that do well, but don't come from the greatest circumstances."

After her first day of classes, Gionna was sure she and her mother had made the right decision.

"Today was awesome," she said. "Everyone's nice. The teachers are great. There's nobody yelling in the hallways - it's so different."

There are things about Bartram she isn't sorry to leave, she said - she had no science teacher for months and had three cell phones stolen during the year, and some of her classmates were angry and unmotivated.

But things had improved some after attention to the school, she said, and part of her will miss it.

Veteran troubleshooter Ozzie Wright was effective as coprincipal, Gionna Hawkins said, and a host of additional resources at the school meant things were calmer and safer recently.

Volunteers were also starting a debate team, which thrilled the aspiring lawyer.

Dawn Hawkins said she has decidedly mixed feelings about her daughter's leaving public school. She praised the many hardworking teachers and administrators at Bartram, who she said tried hard to keep Gionna safe and engaged.

"Good things are going to happen for Bartram, but I couldn't wait to find out what happens," Dawn Hawkins said.

When she called Bartram to say that Gionna was leaving, the staffer she spoke to was gracious, Hawkins said.

"They said, 'You have to do what's best for your kid,' " Hawkins said.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district was "grateful to have had Gionna as one of the many hardworking students at Bartram. We wish her the best at her new school."


kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146 @newskag www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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