In William Penn schools, a season of struggle with no end in sight

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J'Naiha Lamboy (from left), Lyric Cogdell, Maloni Greene, Robert Cogdell, and Kamari Brant are staying at a Residence Inn after their home was damaged in a fire. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When a middle-of-the-night fire badly damaged a rental house in Darby Borough in late November and left a mother and four children homeless, counselors and teachers in the William Penn School District sprang into action.

The district's social worker arranged for a school bus to ferry the kids to school from the Residence Inn Marriott near the Philadelphia airport, where the family was placed. Teachers donated school uniforms for Maloni Greene's three boys, ages 13, 7, and 5, and her daughter, 11. A guidance counselor has been on the phone with Greene almost daily, asking what else the family needs.

Dealing with crises outside the classroom - homelessness, suicide attempts, a growing array of social pressures - is a daily challenge for many school systems, but especially for those as fraught as William Penn. Bordering southwest Philadelphia, it bears the burdens of a high poverty rate among its 5,500 students, the imminent threat of deep budget cuts, and fears of declining state aid.

For the Delaware County district, though, the season of struggle would only get worse.

On Dec. 8, a popular Penn Wood High School senior and football linebacker, 18-year-old Zion Vaughan, was shot in the back and killed on a Yeadon street after dark. A couple of days later came news that a ninth grader, 14-year-old Ciana Perry, the lead in last year's middle school production of The Lion King, had died suddenly.

William Penn's small staff of counselors and psychologists called in help from the Delaware County Intermediate Unit to console grieving students. They set up quiet spaces for kids to convene, and found transportation for students wishing to attend Vaughan's and Perry's funerals, both on Dec. 19.

With just one social worker on duty, the strains have been palpable. A district the size of William Penn, sprawling across inner-ring suburbs including Yeadon, Darby Borough, and Lansdowne, should have five social workers, said Frank Bruno, director of student services and the new president of the National Association of Pupil Services Administrators.

Children "can't sit there and think about geometry if they haven't eaten in eight hours," he said, "or are worried about dad beating up mom, or there's no dad and they have to rush home to take care of younger siblings."

There are also just four guidance counselors for the eight elementaries, where suicide has been threatened by children as young as kindergarten-age.

Such positions have been disappearing statewide for 20 years, said Robert B. Cormany, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Pupil Services Administrators. The average ratio of one counselor for every 500 to 600 students is half of what's needed.

"Because districts are struggling financially," he said, "they're more likely to lay off or not fill positions in pupil services so they can keep the instructional positions filled."

In recent years, William Penn has been on the front lines of the fight over state education funding. It currently is the lead plaintiff in a sweeping lawsuit contending that Harrisburg's inequitable funding formula - in a state that studies have shown has the widest gulf between rich and poor districts - violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The case was argued before the state Supreme Court in September.

William Penn students are 91 percent African American, with close to 80 percent of all students living at poverty level and a growing immigrant population that increasingly arrives from Africa.

Formed by a merger of three districts in 1972, an era of consolidation and school desegregation, William Penn lacks an industrial base and has raised the property tax to 43 mills, one of the highest in Delaware County. Per-pupil spending, $14,138 last year, was slightly more than that in cash-starved Philadelphia, and about two-thirds the amount in affluent Lower Merion.

William Penn has had to dip into its rapidly shrinking fund balance to hold down tax hikes. After spending $2 million in reserves to balance this year's budget, it will be left with $1 million by the end of the year.

"We're always the underdog," said school board president Jennifer Hoff. "We're not funded properly. We scrape and claw for everything we get. . . . Maybe people will wake up and say, 'Hey, they did get a raw deal.' "

If cuts can't be avoided, Hoff said, the district will look at areas such as sports, music, art, busing - but not the counseling or social work staff.

Two funerals in one day made her point.

On the Monday of Zion Vaughan's service, a bus carrying 24 Penn Wood High School football players pulled up to Gospel Temple Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. They were an hour early, but the pews were already packed with about 400 people. Many were young, sobbing or sniffling as they looked toward his open casket and framed No. 33 football jersey.

Vaughan had moved to Yeadon in August. "He showed up the second week, cleats in hand . . . ready to go," head coach Nick Lincoln said.

He impressed his teammates and coaches with his intensity and spirit, not just on the field but at the team talent show, where he brought down the house with a hip-hop version of the ABC's. Coaches were advising him on his goal of entering West Chester University next fall and playing football when he was killed, by an unknown assailant with no apparent motive.

Four days later, Perry's mother, a sixth-grade teacher in the district, called acting Superintendent Jane Harbert to say her daughter had died. School officials did not disclose the cause of death.

For two days, the district tended to grieving students and staff. By Wednesday, they tried to get back to normal.

Yet, "normal" in a district such as William Penn still means dealing with a myriad of social problems. A particularly vexing one: a surge in homelessness.

The district is working with 50 homeless students and 60 in foster care, Bruno said. Because of federal mandates, it must bus in homeless children who have landed outside the district, sometimes as far away as Pottstown.

"One bus costs $5,800 a route, and there's no line item or funds in the budget for homeless students," Bruno said, noting that the problem spikes in winter because of fires sparked by space heaters.

Social worker Nikole Heilmann said some of her biggest problems are in elementary schools, where budget cuts seven years ago mean a guidance counselor is present only every other day.

"I had a kindergartner tie a rope around his neck," she said. "They don't understand the finality of death, but they just don't want to be here."

Heilmann said the district has counted as many as 10 suicide threats in a month - most of them from kindergarten through third grade.

Bruno said William Penn's six school psychologists spend much of their time testing students for special education, while its high school guidance counselors focus heavily on their traditional roles as college and academic advisers. He said the present emphasis on standardized tests such as the PSSAs and the Keystone Exams means that limited dollars must be funneled to classroom instruction.

"There are so many other things impacting our kids before they even get to sit in a seat and crack a book," Bruno said. "Scores are going to continue to drop unless these things are addressed."

Yet administrators and parents say the staff has risen to every nightmarish occasion.

Maloni Greene still speaks in horror about her family's close call on Nov. 28. The fire, which she believes started when a shirt was put on a space heater to dry, sent flames up a back wall and smoke billowing through her home.

Since her family landed at the hotel, Greene said, the support from district staffers and her children's teachers has been a godsend. "I really love the schools," said Greene, who moved back to the region last year from Las Vegas to care for her ailing grandmother. "I really don't have any other support. I'm running like a chicken without a head."

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@Kathy_Boccella

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