Beginning the school year with new faces and changes to how they will operate, Lea Elementary School is working to become a place where students are educated, loved and respected.

This year, the school welcomed a new principal, Jennifer Duffy. She comes to Lea from the central school district office and said one of the main goals is to turn it into a place where educators are treating students how they would want their own children to be treated.

“We are working with the idea of ‘what a school looks like for my own child,’ for all the adults that work here, what do [they] want to see for [their] own child and so the tone has to reflect that exactly,” Duffy said. “So if practices are not suitable for what you would want for your own child, then that’s what we are trying to change, so that means how we talk to children, how we talk to each other and respect. Feedback from teachers [was] that … Lea had to be a space that was respectful to all people and small people too.”

Duffy said to begin such a change in the school culture, some of the basics had to be reorganized, including the admission and the dismissal processes.

When students come to school in the morning, they wait for a signal that communicates it is time to settle and prepare to enter the building.

Duffy describes it as a scene where the “students are all quiet and then we just file beautifully.” She said this piece is important because “if you start out on the right tone then the rest of the day you have a shot at making it look the way and sound the way you want it to sound.”

The new policy for the dismissal is that older students are walked out by teachers, whereas, before they were unescorted. Duffy said this practice helps to ensure “that our hallways are quiet because teaching and learning are happening.”

She added throughout the day, teachers “are expected to monitor the hallways [and] if they hear something out of the ordinary, call the office.”

As for instruction, Duffy said Lea is guided by the district’s mandates.

“In terms of common core and instructional practices, we are focused on those to help us get where we need to be. We have professional development for teachers built in the school day … professional learning communities built in the school day [and] common planning time built in the school day, for teachers to work together.”

In the classroom, Lea teachers said they use a range of methods to reach their students, from small group instruction, to hands on activities.

“A lot of it is getting to know your students and how they learn. Once you have that, there is tremendous room to grow,” said Lindsey Coyne, fifth-grade teacher. “We do a lot of small group instruction because students are diverse. And I try to plan instruction to meet every child’s needs.”

One of her students, Antonio Werts, said the small group instruction helps him, because “she goes through it slower.”

Rachael Labolito, a first-grade teacher, said engaging students in the lesson is central to her teaching.

When the Learning Key visited her classroom, students were on the first step of coloring puppets to illustrate a story they read the previous day.

“They will use the puppet to retell the story to a friend. It’s a little different from them just writing the beginning, middle and end. It’s more engaging,” said Labolito. She added that she uses similar practices when teaching math.

For a lesson in addition, she gave students dominoes and a “pile of pasta” to make the “addition sentences” because it’s “more engaging than giving them a worksheet.”

She also uses technology.

Over the summer, using the online charity Donor’s Choose as a resource, she was able to acquire two iPads for her classroom. Now, her students can access modern technology and use it to learn.

“They [play] sight word games and each got a subscription to Weekly Reader. They think they are playing games and they don’t know they are actually working,” Labolito said.

It’s efforts as these, that push Duffy to applaud her staff and name them as the most special part of the school.

“Our staff is amazing,” she said. “There is a lot of uncertainty in the district, which makes teachers nervous and hesitant [but] I have had nothing but support from teachers. The one thing I have heard most from my teachers is ‘what do you need, what can I do, tell me how to help.’ That’s tremendous.”

In addition to this internal show of care, Duffy said there a several outside organizations that are involved with the school.

The University of Pennsylvania provides student mentors, social workers and interns for classrooms, depending on the “needs,” said Duffy. The West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools is working with Penn, PGW and some local landscape architects to “green” the school and overhaul the playground area, beginning next year.

SPARK, a national nonprofit, will begin working with the school this fall to provide professional mentors for students to shadow in the workforce.

Community groups such as the Walnut Hill Community Association and Garden Court Community Association are active with Lea as well.

Garden Court, which Home and School Association president Maurice Jones, said has been involved with the school for “20 years,” sponsors an annual “book choosing, in which the group purchases books and then reads them with a student. They also provide reading tutors for students that need the help. This year, they will send in 17 mentors to come in an hour a week for “first through fourth grades.”

The West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WEPAC) sponsors the “library programming” for students. About four years ago, said Jones, the school’s library was eliminated because of district budget cuts. But, WEPAC stepped in and opened it back up. Duffy said Penn is supplementing this effort by providing a part time librarian so that it’s accessible to all grades.

“This is really a family-oriented building,” Duffy said. “It feels like a giant extended family. We work hard to make sure that everyone is welcome.”

First-grader Kirsten Upshur agreed, and said this type of atmosphere is what makes Lea a special school.

“I love that they say, ‘Lea school loves you back,’ every day,” she said. “It makes me feel happy because they really love us.”

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