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The Episcopal School in North Philadelphia

By Zack Wright

Zack-w-Lionel-2014-07-18-17.10.34I am a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I major in Classical Studies (with a focus on ancient Greek history) and have done extensive coursework in mathematics.

Having considered teaching as a career possibility — and having previously volunteered time working with middle school students — my mother encouraged me to look into a volunteer position at St. James School in North Philadelphia. She heard about the school from friends in our neighborhood who were affiliated with St. David’s Episcopal Church in Wayne, a major longtime partner to St. James School.

I took a chance and sent an email to Head of School David Kasievich to see whether I might be able to offer my time and energy during my summer away from Dartmouth. He quickly responded with an invitation and I spent the summer of 2014 working and living at St. James School. It was a profoundly transformative experience for me as I learned more about myself and those less fortunate than me.

I grew up outside Philadelphia in a wealthy suburban area. I attended school in Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, named the third best public school district in the United States by an educational review site. I have always known that I liked working with children, frequently babysitting and camp counseling during high school. My parents suggested that I would make a good teacher, but I had not seriously considered it as a career option at the time.

Then during the winter of my junior year at Dartmouth, I returned to Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School as a math intern. I worked with seventh and eighth graders of various levels, designed and taught lessons, planned an entire unit in the curriculum, and graded assignments. I also tutored several students outside the classroom in algebra to help them work on specific areas of difficulty. Over time, they all improved and received higher grades in class.

My experience at Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School completely changed my view of teaching. It is difficult to adequately describe the sense of fulfillment and excitement I gained when I taught students until they finally understood the material, but I found it to be meaningful because it allowed me to bring my own unique personality to the classroom and to use creativity to lead and motivate students.

Having these past teaching experiences helped me to immediately become enthralled by St. James School’s mission of service to the most at-risk youth in the area. They help put students on track to success in their lives, and this ideology immediately resonated with me. I had lived an exceptionally privileged life, and I felt that it was my responsibility as a member of society to give back to those less fortunate in any way that I can.

My first week volunteering at St. James School was during their student finals and it was a hectic time. I worked with the instructional assistants in the classroom to help keep the students on task, and this was a tough experience for me because I was the new guy and none of the students really listened to me or took me seriously. I did my best to fulfill my duties, but I was relieved when the week was over.

The two weeks following finals were by far the most valuable part of my time at St. James School. It was the school’s summer program, and I worked with a fifth grade student named Lionel for almost the entirety of this period. He had a personalized binder of practice sheets and activities we worked on together every day. I greatly enjoyed my time with Lionel even though it was challenging because he struggled with things that I had no experience teaching. I learned that the key with him was to give him a brief break when he was overwhelmed with the material. I would give him a pep talk and extol the things he had done well that day in order to put him into a more positive mindset so that he could focus again. This worked well and he definitely improved by the end of my time with him.

After the summer school program ended, another responsibility was given to me: help recruit new students for the following school year. This put me onto the streets of North Philadelphia talking to complete strangers. I was entirely out of my comfort zone, but I was fortunate to have my coworkers guide me through the process as they helped ensure I was fully equipped to do my job. The recruiting experience improved my ability to interact with people whom I had never met and who had entirely different life experiences from me.

For the remaining part of my summer at St. James, I did various odd jobs ranging from answering the phones and front door to assisting construction workers building the new kitchen to wrestling an excessively heavy filing cabinet up a flight of stairs. It was during these moments that I realized I preferred working at the school while the students where on campus.

Still one of the things that I am most proud of today is the butterfly garden my mother and I planted together. My mother is a landscape designer and she donated beautiful flowers that we planted in the sunken garden by the school’s Community House, which had been a simple plot of open space for years. Hopefully this will remain a lasting legacy of my time at the school.

St. James School is a truly special place and it was my privilege to work with the extraordinary group of people who make it possible. The work they dedicate themselves to is both noble and paradigmatic. St. James School is a bastion of positivity and acceptance in a severely struggling area, and that is truly something to be proud of. I miss my experience there and I wish I had more than a summer’s worth of time to give to them.