Giving Students a Voice at Andrew Jackson

post by Erica Minutella

Welcome to our new series of interviews with local Philly schools, to give you a behind-the-scenes look into the day-to-day activities of the students, parents, and teachers involved in making a school a second home.

The next up in our series is Andrew Jackson Elementary School, serving the Bella Vista and Passyunk Square neighborhoods. We spoke with Principal Kelly Espinosa, who gave us a peak into what a typical day at the school is like for the students there.

Can you tell me about your role there and how you’re settling into Andrew Jackson School?

I am a new principal to the school district. I’ve been here since August, after the former principal was here for about 7 years. There’s a great staff here, there’s great parents here. When I came in there were already strong established partnerships, so we’ve just been building off of the momentum that was here and trying to take that momentum and add some new pieces this year that will make Jackson a unique learning experience for our kids.

If you had to describe the personality – the vibe – of Andrew Jackson School – how would you describe that?

Jackson is a really diverse community. Everything that we do we try to let the students see a little bit of themselves in the school. So the walls are really bright, none of the classrooms are quiet (in a good way). We have lots of hands-on experiences here. Some of the teachers are using 3D printers, and kids are making prosthetics for animals. They’re gaining experiences here that they’re going to be able to bring out into the real world.

You have some cool programs set up – like dance classes with Koresh Dance Company. How do these programs come into play?

We have a really dedicated staff who go above and beyond and are really passionate about what they do. A lot of these partnerships started with teachers who were using their own personal connections and applying for grants. Some of them have been drawing a lot of notice, and then partners have been seeking us out. We want Jackson to be a place where kids are receiving not just academic skills, but the social aspect, so they can be leaders out in their communities. And giving them a unique experience that they might not have elsewhere, so they can see what’s out there. And some of the kids anticipate that they’re not going to enjoy what they’re doing, and then when they start it, they love it. So it’s exposing them to new things to help them find their own interests.

Plus it familiarizes them with the community they live in and the resources they have available to them. Now can you run me through a typical day at the school?

Our students are all greeted by our staff members either in the school yard or the cafeteria. We meet as a community in the morning, and we have our students come up and do the pledge or do announcements. We’re trying to build that sense of leadership. They spend all day long with their teachers, depending on their age. Our middle schoolers are participating in an elective during the school day that is of their choice. Depending on the student, their experience might look a little different. Some students are participating in student government meetings at certain points of the day, some are doing community service with a teacher that they formed a bond with. All of our students eat lunch and have recess in the yard, and then depending on the grade that’s where some of our partnerships come in. Koresh is with our fourth graders, and they have that once a week. So it really varies by age level and grade and teacher.

Are there a lot of extracurricular activities as well?

Some of our after-school activities are run by our partners. We do have some teachers who do after-school clubs here. Most of the teachers if they’re here with students after school, it’s giving the child extra support. We really try to do that for our students with parents who speak a different language at home and might not be able to help them with homework. Some of our kids also participate after-school with our music teacher: we have a rock band called Home. And then he also started a junior rock band. The band had a documentary that premiered on WHYY, and they play gigs all over the city. Drexel University comes and does Spanish club with our students. We have a lot of them!

What do you think makes Andrew Jackson’s education unique?

So I think it goes back to the staff that we have here. Every single staff member here goes above and beyond for our students. We have several award-winning teachers at our school. Beyond that we have teachers who are here for the right reasons: they want to help kids and make a difference in their lives. That’s why you see some of the unique programming here at Jackson. Because they’re trying to get kids to come to school every day wanting to learn. They want to be here. We’re making and exceeding some of the academic goals we had for this year. We spent a lot of time with the community developing what we want for Jackson students. We bring everything we do back to that vision.

How does Andrew Jackson work with parents and community?

If there’s one word that I would use to describe Jackson it’s community, because of our involvement with our stakeholders. So just like we’re trying to provide our students with leadership opportunities, and voice and input, we do the same with parents and the community. We have a parent group, the Home and School Association. It’s a very strong organization, and they’ve created subdivisions of themselves. They meet with me to discuss various issues, areas of need, and then they help re-channel that communication to parents, fundraising, getting volunteers. The two community-based groups are Friends of Jackson, and the School Advisory Council – and that’s made up of parents, teachers, community members, and my goal for next year is to put a student on there. I do quarterly town halls with my parents so we can stay focused. And I give them updates on how we’re progressing with that plan. If what we’re asking our parents to support isn’t working, we have an open Q&A. The parents and community feel as though this is a welcoming place where their voice can be heard, where they can not just support the school, but provide their input.

What would you say to help a prospective student feel welcome at Andrew Jackson?

What I tell prospective students and parents is that Jackson is a very unique place. But if you were to come here and see the way the teachers interact with the kids, this is a place where they feel comfortable, they feel that they have a voice, and they’re learning something and having fun at the same time. That feeling that when you’re here, you’re at home.

If you have questions about your neighborhood and its schools, reach out to Christina Briglia, Realtor, anytime with your questions: 267.231.5484 or phc.christina@gmail.com.