Southwark School making the grade

Southwark third-grade teacher Kayla Rooks helps Sam Mang Chan with an assignment in math class. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Any good math teacher will tell you that showing the work is just as important as finding the correct answer.

At the Southwark School, which educates pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students on South 9th Street, some recent glowing test scores can be easily traced to a number of factors in the hallways and classrooms.

Southwark’s 2018-19 School Progress Report showed a huge leap in Average Growth Index in both math and English Language Arts. In fact, it was rated the highest in math growth and the second highest in English among 166 public and charter schools in the School District of Philadelphia last year.

“That’s the sweat and tireless work of our teachers to get our students to keep progressing and keep meeting goals,” Southwark principal Andrew Lukov said.

For the last three years, the school has significantly surpassed growth projection in English and math, which Lukov said is very difficult to achieve. He can speak to the progression first-hand, as Lukov has been principal for the last seven years at Southwark. Enrollment has nearly doubled from 525 to 950 students during that time, making it the largest public school in South Philadelphia. He quickly pointed to a dedicated teaching staff as the main reason for the improvement.

“I can’t say enough about our teachers that bring it every single day,” Lukov said. “Many times, teachers aren’t looked upon the way they should be. Our teachers are heroes here. This doesn’t happen without excellent teachers in the classroom.”

Kayla Rooks is one of them. Now in her third year of teaching third grade at the school, Rooks was spotlighted as a standout teacher, contributing to the recent success.

“I think it’s looking at the standards and diving into that,” said Rooks. “I think as a staff, we’ve really focused on what the standard actually says and guiding our instruction, instead of just looking at a book or a curriculum.”

A key factor to increasing English Language Arts scores has been a focus on teaching bilingual languages, as many students enter the school as primarily Spanish-speaking.

Jayleen Medina has taught first-grade bilingual language at the school for the last five years. The students who have passed through her class are excelling in later grades.

“I’m very proud of them because they’re working very hard,” Medina said. “They are challenged every single day because they are learning a new language. It’s a big challenge, and they never give up. We want students to be bilingual, and I can really see the improvement for the students in reading and writing fifth grade in both languages.”

Southwark third-grade students Shalik Fogle (left) and Gonzalo Diaz work on a project together. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Overall, the school received a score of 65 percent (up three points from last year and up nine from 2017), and landed once again in the “Reinforce” category, which is the second-highest bracket. The school reached the highest “Model” category in both progress and school climate but still struggles in Achievement, which measures performance on standardized assessments and reading assessments.

“Unfortunately, we have struggled with achievement,” Lukov said. “We have some students that are still learning the language and after just one year of learning, they are mandated to take the standardized tests and we do struggle with that. The good news is we’re getting better. We need to work a little harder but we are seeing progress.”

The other area of concern was the Science subcategory of the Average Growth Index in which the school was below average. Lukov said the school has traditionally shifted the majority of its financial resources to the math and language areas but recently jump-started its science structure by implementing new programs and focusing more attention in that area.

Southwark sixth-grade math teacher Phil Dauria uses the white board for instruction during class. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Science isn’t the only area on the rebound.

A few years ago, the school received a six-figure “Keys of Inspiration” grant from the International Music Foundation that helped restore a music program that was gutted during budget cuts seven years ago.

The school transformed an empty room into a flourishing music laboratory with multiple pianos, keyboards, guitars and other instruments. Southwark’s arts department now has two music teachers, an arts teacher and a dance teacher. There’s continuous field trips and partnerships with local arts organizations.

“Being a music teacher, it’s awesome to have that kind of support from administrators,” said music teacher Rebecca Moats. “A lot of times, they are just focused on test prep. But here, I feel like music and arts are important to them. I feel like it builds the community with the kids. It’s a class and a space for them and some time out of their day that they’re getting to be music makers.”

The excitement surrounding the school is reminiscent of when teacher Shelley Ruderman began her tenure in 1992. She says it’s getting back to those levels.

“When I first got here, the school was a gem,” she said. “Over time, we lost that a little bit. But in the last five years or so, we really exploded. The growth has been amazing. New programs, community involvement, parental involvement and the overall achievement of our students has been incredible.”

Lukov said the School Progress Report was a point of pride, but he vowed that even better days are ahead. Students categorized as “lowest-performing” earned an 89 percent in progress, including the maximum score in English. It points to positive trends moving forward.

“It makes us really proud,” Lukov said. “It’s really helping us build momentum.”