When Darlene Lomax-Garrett became co-principal of Fairhill Elementary School at 601 W. Somerset St. last year, it wasn’t her first time around. Earlier in her career she had joined the school’s faculty to fill in for a principal on leave, but the principal came back before she could make a serious impression.
Now she has returned to the school in much the same way – to support its current principal who has recently left on sick leave. Although this time, she’s been able to leave a lasting impact on the school.
“My mantra is, ‘we’re not a babysitting service,'” said Lomax-Garrett. “This is an educational institution and it must be maintained as such. I need everyone in the building with this focus in mind. We cannot expect our parents to send us their most precious resources and have us not do everything we can to make sure these children are academically successful.”
However, Fairhill Elementary School’s children face obstacles to their development not just inside the classrooms, but in their homes as well.
“Not unlike any other school across the nation, our children, particularly in these tough economic times, face a myriad of problems,” said Lomax-Garrett. “Problems directly associated with living in poverty.”
Census data collected in 2010 indicate 52.6 percent of Fairhill’s population of about 28,000 residents live below poverty level. The neighborhood’s median household income is estimated to be about $14,310, more than $35,000 less than Pennsylvania’s median household income of $50,398. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty threshold was $23,021 for a family of four in 2011.
“Our children have it internalized they are destined to remain in this socioeconomic status,” said Lomax-Garrett. “We try to motivate and inspire our children to see beyond their environment – to see themselves maybe doing something different than what their parents have done, or what their siblings have done. It’s a challenge, but I work hard to overcome it.”
Robert Harris has been teaching at Fairhill Elementary since 1994. Over the 18 years he’s been with the school, Harris has taught every grade and nearly every subject. During this time, he said he’s garnered an appreciation for and an understanding of the lives of the students.
“The neighborhood they’re in doesn’t always offer a lot of opportunities,” he said. “Sometimes our kids think they can’t achieve, or they can’t get beyond their environment, which translates over to the school. So we’re trying to break through those barriers. And once we can tear this mentality down, we’ve seen some our students go on to high school, go on to college and become professionals.”
However, there are other impediments Fairhill Elementary children face besides poverty – the most significant being English is a second language for many students.
Fairhill’s population is 80.6 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 census. This statistic is reflected in the school’s student body. Lynn Ruiz teaches at Fairhill Elementary as part of Philadelphia School District’s English to Speakers of Other Languages program. Ruiz said she teaches about 70 students in Fairhill Elementary whose first language is Spanish.
“A lot of them don’t have ‘academic’ language,” she said. “Some of them don’t have the ability to speak English yet – they only understand a little bit.”
Ruiz said the challenge to her students mostly stems from English not being read, spoken or taught in their homes.
“This is the only place where they’re really learning English,” she said. “They’re learning from TV and from the street, but they’re not necessarily learning ‘correct’ English. Some of them are learning English and Spanish at the same time. So sometimes they’ll mix Spanish and English words up.”
Another problem is in an area as entrenched in Spanish as Fairhill, there’s not much impetus for the kids to learn English, said Ruiz.
“A lot of them don’t really try to learn English because they know most people in the neighborhood will understand them in their first language,” she said. “It’s also a challenge for their parents to learn English, because there’s so many places available to them, like doctors who speak Spanish and corner stores which sell Spanish products, where everything is written in Spanish.”
“We start off with many children who have severe deficits which are very difficult to overcome instructionally,” said Lomax-Garrett. “Public school teachers have triple duty every day – they have to fill in the void in children’s learning, often times they have to take the place of a nurturing parent and then they have to teach the child on grade level, to prepare him or her for the next grade level. It’s a very difficult job.”
Recently released standardized test results have inspired Lomax-Garrett to try an unconventional approach to spur her students academically forward.
Each year, public school students in Pennsylvania must take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, exam which measures students in reading, mathematics, science and writing. The Pennsylvania Department of Education states all students must be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014 in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act.
In 2012, PSSA results revealed only 17.1 percent of Fairhill Elementary students were proficient in math, and a mere 16.7 percent were proficient in reading. These figures actually represent a more than 5 percent decline in math and reading proficiencies from the 2010-2011 school year.
Lomax-Garrett said she knew she would have to do something to inspire students’ reading outside of the classroom. To accomplish this, she developed Fairhill Elementary School’s Learn to Earn initiative.
“Part of the reason why scores are so low is probably because students don’t spend enough time reading independently,” she said. “The reading block they’re given in the morning is not enough time to become a competent reader. I figured if we gave children an incentive to read throughout the school day, just for the enjoyment of reading, this would increase their reading skills.”
The initiative increases students’ independent reading time to two and half hours each week and has teachers stressing strategies on how to become a better reader. Students seen reading will be given “Bobcat Bucks” which can be redeemed at auctions for prizes like board games, skateboards and scooters.
“The adults in the school community – our custodial staff, our secretarial staff, our support staff, visitors to the school – everyone is expected to carry a book and spend time reading and talking to children about the importance of reading,” said Lomax-Garrett.
As part of this program, each student may create, design and decorate a box of books at their grade level to read. And through the donations and efforts of book drives by the local historical society, Historic Fair Hill, Inc., the students are able to keep the books in their classrooms and take them home.
Harris has already seen children reading more since after the program began.
“We’ve seen kids reading going up and down the stairs and in the lunch room,” he said. “In classrooms, if there’s time in between assignments, they’re opening up a book as opposed to just sitting idly. I can only imagine in the upcoming weeks and months the program will have a positive effect on our kids, and ultimately their reading comprehension will increase.”
Lomax-Garrett said the aim of the program is to not only inspire her students to read, but to impress the idea of education being an investment for their future.
“Hopefully, this initiative will help our children realize there is a direct correlation between their educational level and their future earning potential,” she said. “The more educated they are, the more likely they’ll be able to live the way they want to live.”
Below, Jean Warrington talks about Historic Fair Hill Inc. and its book drives for Fairhill Elementary School. In the past six years, the non-profit organization has collected and donated more than 16,000 books for the education and enjoyment of the school’s students.