Community involvement aids David Birney’s rebirth

John Graves, the performing arts teacher, goes through his dance routine with his students at the David Birney Elementary School. — PHILADELPHIA TRIBUNE PHOTOGRAPHER / JARID A. BARRINGER

Every composer has likely had moments when even the best ideas are not producing the desired results and opts to rip up the pages to start over again. Yet the musical creator may retain some phrases or sections of the original composition while coming up with an entire new and improved masterful work. That’s kind of what happened at the David Birney School in Logan.

Located at 900 W. Lindley Ave. in the neighborhood surrounded by sinking homes and diminishing hope, the K-8 Birney School is giving Logan residents hope. The public school became a “Turnaround School” a year ago. This mean it received a complete overhaul of staff to breath new life into the solid multi-story brick building.

Teacher Vania Gulston is one of the newest members to the staff. She has been teaching seventh-grade at Birney since February. The Los Angeles native who has taught in New York City came to Philadelphia to get her master’s degree from Temple University and stayed. She brings with her five years of teaching experience.

“I’ve been greatly impressed with the way the school is progressing,” said Gulston just before the younger students displayed their talents on the April 25 Paragon Night. “The first thing I noticed when I came here was how the children are reading a lot. That’s what makes the curriculum so strong in social studies, English and history.”

Yet Paragon Night shows off well what elementary and middle school aged students are learning at Birney this year. The rear ground level cafeteria has a standing room only crowd of parents and faculty. The children fill the area in front of the stage as they watch their counterparts perform class by class. The energy is so high that there is a kinetic synergy in the room.

Gulston said that Paragon Night is just one of many showcases for the children’s talent. She was quick to single out dance teacher John Graves for coordinating larger programs and working with every student in the K-8 school, including the middle schoolers she teachers.

As Gulston is talking to “The Learning Key” Graves is on stage putting on the Michael Jackson chartmaker “Wanna Be Starting Something”. The students are lined up waiting to take steps in unison as soon as the music starts. “It’s universal. Kids love this and they try to over do it, and I want them to do well,” Graves said.

Enjoying the performance was guidance counselor, Danielle Burnett, who joined the staff last September, and special education teacher Anthony Reed, who came aboard last August. A reserved Burnett said that all the preparation for the Paragon Night made her exhausted. She said that it is worth it because it’s all about the children.

“This is truly a child-centered school,” said Reed. “We have performing arts, a librarian, gym, music classes, and a strong academic educational curriculum. We understand that you have to give students a wide range of experiences. When you’re in a (turnaround) school you know that there are things you have to correct and together we are working well together doing just that.”

Paragon Night gives the students’ family a sampling of the positive energy in the school’s classrooms, according to Reed. “This really showcases what we are doing here. The presence of so many parents is great because we have a strong Home and School Association. I wished more parents would be directly involved but something like this brings them out,” Reed said.

The stage performers are taking the audience on a trek to the Indonesian islands to Bali. They show bits of the dance, music and art of that and other cultures. They then created a scene where they asked the question, “Why do people create art?” With an omniscient voice in the background the child actors answered the question in pantomime. The audience bursts into spontaneous applause throughout.

The stage displays a colorful mural with palm trees. The children know how to locate various parts of the world from the map. They then acted out a scene that integrated animals, family members, percussion musical instruments, and interpretive dance movements.

“I think this is one of the better schools there are,” said Brooke McCullough, whose 6-year old kindergarten daughter, Alyssa, danced on stage during Paragon Night. “I think this Paragon Night shows how the kids are learning a lot of staff. My daughter is learning things in kindergarten most don’t know.”

McCullough readily admitted that initially when she was going to send her daughter to school she had her sights set on her going to the Incarnation Catholic School. When that Archdiocese of Philadelphia School closed she did not know where she would send Alyssa. It was after learning about the “turnaround” school and meeting the staff that she felt comfortable sending her daughter.

“This school is really right across the street. So, it’s always convenient going to school in the neighborhood. Originally I didn’t want her going to public school. Now I am happy with her education and I am all for schools like this,” McCullough said.

Parents, like McCullough, said they felt comfortable letting their child attend Birney from K to 8. Many parents of middle schoolers as well as those who had children in a multiple of grades singled out the quality of the kindergarten teachers. They include Saadia Muhaimir, Melissa Pavonarius and Danielle Scruse.

“There is so much positive energy here even as we are all new hires,” said Muhaimir. “This is a very kinetic environment because we use all the visual and performing arts. We also have a strong reading, science and math curriculum from elementary to middle school. It’s a place where we believe in the children.

“Children are encouraged to use their imaginations. When we teach we are not just thinking about doing well in 2012. We see into the future. We are preparing them for that future. That’s what I see when they bring the house down at events like this,” Muhaimir said.

Middle schoolers will hold their Paragon Night on Wednesday, June 6. The school will also host its first Talent Showcase this Thursday, May 10.

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