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Place cursor over pictures to view captions. Photos: Maria Pouchnikova. 

It’s the first day of school at St. Malachy and students file into the brick courtyard of the old elementary school on North 11th Street.

The girls sport white polo shirts underneath their plaid jumpers, blue knee high socks and black shoes. The boys are dressed in crisp (but not for long) white or blue polo shirts tucked into their blue slacks.

For a number of these children, it is their first time in uniform and their first time ever in a Catholic school. Many have come to St. Malachy (pro: Mal-ah-KEY) from closed public schools in the area. Others, who are returning to the school, greet their classmates and teachers from years past.

Parents snap pictures on their cellphones as students cluster in the courtyard by grade. At 8 a.m. sharp, students, teachers and parents join to recite the Afrocentric Creed.  It begins: “ I have faith in myself.  I have faith in my teachers…”

It’s a typical day as far as first days go, but also a new day at St. Malachy School, which is simultaneously one of the oldest Catholic schools in the city and now one of its new Mission Schools.

St. Malachy is one of 14 newly established Independence Mission Schools, that serve mostly non-Catholic students in poor neighborhoods. IMS is the non-profit group that took over operation of these former parish schools, many of which were slated to be closed because of budget problems and declining enrollment. IMS officially took over the schools on July 1. No longer will the schools answer to their pastors, nor will they get any money from the parish.  They have to go it on their own, with an assist from IMS.

So far, so good it seems.  Almost all the schools are seeing increases in enrollment; about 1,100 additional students in total, according to Marie Keith, director of enrollment and marketing at IMS. The network of schools has more than 4,100 students.

“It blows me away that the schools were going to close and now there’s 1,100 new students,” Keith said.

Most of the students are poor. Most of them are non-Catholic. And ninety percent of them are receiving financial aid. Catholic school tuition in Philadelphia ranges from $2,800 to $4,000 a year, but Keith said most parents pay $2,000 or less.

“Our goal was to ensure that no family paid more than they did last year,” she said.

St. Malachy, which is in the Yorktown section of North Philadelphia, has an enrollment of 184 students.  While enrollment has remained relatively the same over the years, there are 74 new students enrolled at the school this year due to turnovers, many of them coming from closed neighborhood public schools. The school has a capacity of 225 students, with one class per grade from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The poverty around St. Malachy is deep.  Even with financial aid, it is difficult for parents to find the money needed to attend.

“It is very difficult in that neighborhood compared to many of our others,” Keith said. “ Many cannot even afford to pay anything. They have a difficult time navigating the financial aid and we had to hand hold many of them through the process.”

One of the new families is Kia Marable and daughters Kayla, 9, and Markeema, 10, The sisters went to Leslie P. Hill Elementary School before it was closed by the Philadelphia School District in June.

Marable said she always wanted her daughters to attend a Catholic school but didn’t have the money to send them there. After receiving a scholarship, Marable was able to send Kayle and Markeema to St Malachy, which she likes for its small class sizes and religious foundation. On top of that, when Marable visited the school, she felt “comfortable and good spirits.”

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A month later and it’s business as usual at St Malachy. The school still follows the archdiocesan curriculum, meaning all of the children have religion class every day. Ms. Morell’s third grade class is learning how to round in Math. Ms. Parker’s fourth grade class is learning about author inspiration in anticipation of their own writing assignments. And Mr. G’s sixth grade class is discussing the story of Abraham from the Bible.

Student Frederick Thompson during religion class (Maria Pouchnikova).

Student Frederick Thompson during religion class (Maria Pouchnikova).

This may be a new day for St. Malachy, but no change is visible on the ground.

“I maybe see it more than anybody else does, just some changes in how I do some administrative things, but really in terms of the students and the teachers and the parents I don’t think they’ve seen a big difference,” Richardson said.

It’s Richardson’s third year as principal at the school. She came to St Malachy after her former school, Ascension of Our Lord, in Kensington closed. When she arrived the school it wasn’t doing well when it came to academic performance.

“I think everybody wants their test scores up, that’s what we’ve been working on,” Richardson said, adding that St Malachy is part of University of Pennsylvania’s Distributed Leadership Program “Two of our teachers are trained as teacher leaders and they’ve really taken the initiative to move us forward with our academic results, especially in math and writing.”

In terms of financial goals, Richardson says the school wants to keep its fundraising and development on par with last year, “if not more.” Even before it became a member of the IMS group, the school was depending on outside donations for $500,000 of its $1 million budget, much of it coming from the Adopt-A-Student program, which allows individuals and businesses can sponsor a student.

“It costs over $5,000 to educate a student. Parents are paying about $2,400-$2,500, so about half of that,” Richardson said. “So the Adopt-A-Student people make up the difference.”

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St Malachy is fortunate to have resources that Philadelphia’s public schools don’t have due to recent budget cutbacks and layoffs. For instance, this year, for the first time, the school has a social worker. The position comes out of the school’s budget but ultimately IMS pays for the position.

The school also has an orchestra thanks to a partnership with the organization Symphony in C.  Last year, 24 students took violin and cello lessons as part of the program, performing in a concert at the end of the year.

“There were seven different variations of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, all of them wonderful,” Richardson said, laughing. “It was great. I cried.”

This year 36 students will take part in the program, and the school is adding a 30- to 40-member choir.

Using board members and volunteer coaches from area law firms , the school has a boys basketball program and boys and girls spring track. For the past six years sixth graders at the school have taken ballroom dance classes through the nonprofit Dancing with the Students. Two years ago, the school added an art program through a partnership with Abrakadoodle, and last year it added a science lab. This year, it’s updating its technology program so that kindergarten through second graders have an iPad; third through eighth graders use laptops. Every classroom has a Smart Board.

Student Tiygeah Tumaini-Williams waits for her teacher to give instructions (Maria Pouchnikova photo).

Student Tiygeah Tumaini-Williams waits for her teacher to give instructions (Maria Pouchnikova photo).

Ideally, partnerships and programs such as these will only be able to flourish with the support of IMS. The idea is that the nonprofit will serve as an advocate for the 14 schools, promoting and marketing them to gain fundraising support, allowing more students to take part in the model.

Principals like Richardson are looking forward to the extra manpower and support.

“Having someone who can help with marketing and public relations, that’s been a blessing,” she said. “With the city schools there’s always concern about being closed because you don’t have the resources. Having 14 of us together I think that it just gives us more power, it helps us share resources.”

For instance, at St Malachy, IMS was able to find extra scholarship dollars to bring back a student who left the school because her mother was no longer being able to pay tuition.

Of course, the long-term success of IMS rides on its ability to continue raise money and secure partnerships to support its network of schools. So far it seems to be working. Currently seven schools are at capacity, Keith said.

“When we hit capacity we will re-evaluate,” she said. “If we need to open more schools, we will.”

 

Follow Julia Bergman on Twitter.