Past needles and pit bulls, Edison's teachers walk the walk

Edison High School teacher walk through the community near the school on Tuesdayl, declaring their commitment to kids the day before school starts.

Dena Bassett-Scott stepped over a discarded hypodermic needle and glanced at a pit bull barking urgently against a chain-link fence inches away.

"I'm thinking of our younger students - they're walking all this way, and they're seeing all this, and they're scared," said the math teacher at Edison High.

On Wednesday, 1,200 pupils are scheduled to report to Edison for the first day of school. On Tuesday, more than 100 staffers walked the North Philadelphia streets that most of their students will travel to get to class.

It was a way to declare to the community their commitment to kids in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods on the eve of a new term for the Philadelphia School District. But, perhaps even more, it was a way to visualize some of the challenges their students face.

"Our kids are coming from disenfranchised, stigmatized neighborhoods," said Awilda Ortiz, Edison's principal, who has overseen the trip for three years now. "I wanted our staff to be well aware of this. If we're going to reach them, we have to understand them."

For an hour, the Edison staff was impossible to miss in the neighborhood: dozens of ambassadors in green polo shirts, handing out flyers reminding folks when school began and what students' uniforms looked like.

Tasha Sanford-Spencer, a new assistant principal speed-walking up West Luzerne Street, spotted a neighbor glancing quizzically at the phalanx of people with the police escort.

"Could you greet that gentleman?" Sanford-Spencer called. A teacher ran over to hand him a flyer.

On Luzerne Street, on Fifth, on Pike, on Erie Avenue, they walked past some neighbors waving tentatively from porches, but more commonly, the view was weeds and trash and discarded beer bottles and chip bags. A few teachers held their breath over an old bridge with chunks of concrete missing. There was no sidewalk in some places.

Bassett-Scott had a "really, really challenging year" in her first term at Edison, where almost a third of all students require special-education services and another third are English-language learners. The first week, she thought about leaving. But she drew inspiration from her students, some of whom had just arrived in the U.S. and spoke very little English.

"I thought, 'If they can do it, I can do it,' " said Bassett-Scott.

The trip was eye-opening, she said. Edison moved to its current building from Seventh and Lehigh more than 20 year ago, but its boundaries remained the same. Most of its students live just under the distance that would give them a free ride to school, so they walk. Some come to school hungry. Others have children of their own.

Last year, Bassett-Scott was administering an exam with another teacher when they noticed a student who was unusually agitated. They asked what was wrong; the teen said he had not eaten because there was no money for food.

The other teacher told the young man that he would call down to the cafeteria and find him some food. He said he would delay the start of the exam for a few minutes so the student could eat before he had to take the important test.

"That kid had a totally different attitude after that," Bassett-Scott said. "The teachers here know their kids so well."

David Mills, a graphic design teacher in Edison's robust career and technical education program, said the staff feeds off the students' grit.

The kids' resilience sustains staff amid challenges - bruising budget cuts, years without a pay raise, a large central bureaucracy that teachers sometimes feel like they're fighting against. It's why more than 100 people volunteered to walk the neighborhood when they could have been setting up their classrooms, Mills said.

"It hasn't even occurred to me to quit this job and go somewhere else," Mills said. "This is my home. We all do our best to stay here."

Edison is one of the district's Promise Academies, struggling schools tapped for in-house turnaround. But Ortiz is upbeat: the school's academic outcomes are improving and its staff is cohesive. It has partnerships and promise.

"Our young people are at progress," she said, "not at risk."

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