He's up to the challenge

As the new prin­cip­al of Fels High School, Shawn M. McGuigan wants to em­phas­ize aca­dem­ics, stu­dent pride, and earn the com­munity's re­spect.

Shawn McGuigan, prin­cip­al of Fels High School, poses for a photo on Wed­nes­day, Au­gust 10 in his of­fice. Kev­in Cook/for the Times

The nov­elty has worn off of the “new” Samuel Fels High School in Sum­mer­dale.

The sparkle re­mains on the ex­pans­ive, state-of-the-art fa­cil­ity at 5500 Lang­don St., which next month will enter its third school year of use.

But first-year prin­cip­al Shawn M. McGuigan doesn’t plan to kick back and en­joy the scenery. He has a dif­fer­ent agenda in mind for ad­min­is­tra­tion, fac­ulty and stu­dents.

“The truth is, once you get past the beauty of the school, it’s a school. For us who come in here every day, it’s work,” McGuigan said. “You real­ize you have a job to do. The teach­ers have a job, and the stu­dents have a job.”

McGuigan, 40, ar­rived at Fels in June to re­place out­go­ing prin­cip­al Eileen Coutts. McGuigan is a May­fair nat­ive and Phil­adelphia Pub­lic School product, hav­ing gradu­ated from Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln High.

He also at­ten­ded col­lege in North­east Phil­adelphia, earn­ing a bach­el­or’s de­gree and two mas­ter’s de­grees from Holy Fam­ily Uni­versity. He pre­vi­ously taught at the nearby Laura H. Car­nell School be­fore serving as an as­sist­ant prin­cip­al at Aus­tin Mee­han Middle School in May­fair and Charles Car­roll High School in Port Rich­mond.


Fels is his first ap­point­ment as a full-fledged prin­cip­al. He wants to ex­pand stu­dent pro­grams in sev­er­al key areas and in­tro­duce new pro­grams in oth­ers while mak­ing sev­er­al simple yet po­ten­tially in­flu­en­tial changes to the way the school op­er­ates.

Bey­ond that, he wants to change the of­ten-neg­at­ive pub­lic per­cep­tion of the school to re­flect ac­cur­ately the pos­it­ive role it plays with­in the wider com­munity.

“I think it’s been ac­cep­ted with mixed views by the com­munity,” McGuigan said. “My pro­jec­tion is for it to have a one-hun­dred per­cent pos­it­ive repu­ta­tion. I want every­body to un­der­stand this is a reg­u­lar neigh­bor­hood high school that has a lot to of­fer kids.

“I want the com­munity to be as proud of the school as we are.”

The chal­lenges it faces are fa­mil­i­ar to many pub­lic high schools throughout the city.

En­roll­ment has re­mained re­l­at­ively stable, between 1,550 and 1,650, for the last three years, des­pite a move in fall 2009 from the old Fels High, a smal­ler aging build­ing at 901 Dever­eaux Ave., to the cur­rent loc­a­tion.

Eth­nic­ally, 67.5 per­cent of stu­dents in 2010-11 were Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, 19.2 per­cent were Latino, 9.5 per­cent Asi­an and 2.3 per­cent Caucasi­an.

Dur­ing the same aca­dem­ic year, 18.4 per­cent of stu­dents were iden­ti­fied as dis­abled, and 73.9 per­cent were iden­ti­fied as “eco­nom­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged” and 12.7 per­cent re­quired spe­cial Eng­lish Lan­guage Learner ser­vices.

The North­east Times was un­able to ob­tain of­fi­cial at­tend­ance data for last year, but in 2009-10, daily at­tend­ance av­er­aged 82 per­cent of en­roll­ment — mean­ing that on any giv­en day al­most one in five stu­dents were re­por­ted ab­sent.


Fels is one of 19 Phil­adelphia pub­lic schools on Pennsylvania’s “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous schools” list, 14 of which are high schools. The North­east’s Lin­coln High and Frank­ford High are also on the list.

Yet, at Fels, so-called “ser­i­ous in­cid­ents” were on the de­cline in 2009-10. There were 61 as­saults re­por­ted that year, com­pared to 126 in the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to Phil­adelphia School Dis­trict stat­ist­ics.

Fels High’s stand­ard­ized test­ing scores in­creased for both math and read­ing last school year, ac­cord­ing to McGuigan. But as of the 2009-10 test­ing, just 19 per­cent of the school’s 11th graders scored at the ad­vanced or pro­fi­cient levels for math, com­pared to 36.3 per­cent for Phil­adelphia pub­lic schools as a whole.

Sim­il­arly, 18.2 per­cent of Fels test-takers were ad­vanced or pro­fi­cient in read­ing in 2009-10, com­pared to 42.6 per­cent for the dis­trict as a whole.

McGuigan thanks that many of the school’s is­sues stem from one gen­er­al prob­lem: many stu­dents don’t show up on time and ready to learn.

“I came in with a lot of ideas for im­me­di­ate changes to ad­dress the prob­lem of late­ness,” he said. “A lot of kids came in late to school last year.”


So this year, which will start for stu­dents on Sept. 6, the school day will of­fi­cially start 10 minutes later. The first bell will be at 7:45 a.m. in­stead of 7:35. To make up for the delay, the school day will also end 10 minutes later.

“To me, ten minutes later is no big deal. (But) my main think­ing, hon­estly, is in high school kids like to sleep later,” he said.

Also, in some cases, stu­dents might have early-morn­ing du­ties at home, like mak­ing break­fast or help­ing young­er sib­lings get ready for school or day care. The ex­tra 10 minutes will give those teens a bit more time to take care of things.

Mean­while, break­fast will be open to early ar­riv­ing stu­dents from 7:20 to 7:40 a.m. daily. And lunch peri­ods will be re­duced from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.

More im­port­antly than the delayed first bell, stu­dents will no longer have the lux­ury of an ad­vis­ory peri­od, also known as home­room, to start the day. First peri­od will now be in­struc­tion­al. Ad­vis­ory will be second peri­od.

Last year, “kids would come in late be­cause it was like no big deal. It doesn’t af­fect their grades,” McGuigan said.

Now, first peri­od will count, as will get­ting to school on time.

“I want them to get that men­tal­ity back. I think they’re go­ing to have no choice,” the prin­cip­al said.


McGuigan wants the stu­dents to look the part, too. That’s why he changed the dress code. Last year, stu­dents had to wear white shirts with no lo­gos. Little if any­thing dis­tin­guished them from ran­dom kids walk­ing down the street.

Now, they’ll have to wear gray, polo-style shirts with a dis­tinct­ive Pan­ther logo em­blazoned on the left breast. The uni­form also in­cludes black slacks or knee-length skirt. In warm-weath­er months, stu­dents can al­tern­ately wear black shorts.

The gray shirts are a lot easi­er to main­tain than white. They don’t stain as of­ten, McGuigan said. Also, the gray shirts fea­ture “Samuel Fels High School” let­ter­ing, which serves as a re­mind­er to the stu­dents about the in­sti­tu­tion that they rep­res­ent.

Kids who be­have well while trav­el­ing to and from school will re­flect well upon the school. Stu­dents who act poorly will be eas­ily spot­ted and iden­ti­fied, as well.

The shirts are avail­able for $10 each in the school of­fice from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. In­form­a­tion about the uni­forms, re­gis­tra­tion and oth­er school news is avail­able via www.PhilaSD.org/schools/fels or by call­ing 215-537-2516.


In time, McGuigan hopes to start a school store with logo ap­par­el, along with school sup­plies. Pro­ceeds will be­ne­fit ath­let­ics, spe­cial edu­ca­tion and oth­er pro­grams. Mean­while, stu­dents who work in the store will gain valu­able busi­ness ex­per­i­ence.

Un­der the new prin­cip­al, stu­dents will have op­por­tun­it­ies to ex­per­i­ence oth­er new cur­ricular and ex­tra­cur­ricular pro­grams.

“We really want to branch out this year,” he said. “This school has so much po­ten­tial for kids com­ing in.”

McGuigan is a self-taught pi­an­ist. As a youth, he was a mem­ber of the Phil­adelphia Boys Choir. And as a teach­er, he has an ex­tens­ive per­form­ing arts back­ground. So he wants to start an an­nu­al hol­i­day vari­ety show in the winter and an an­nu­al mu­sic­al pro­duc­tion in the spring. He wants to have a full march­ing band too.

“We will roster kids (in­to band classes) so they can’t say that they can’t make it after school,” he said.

“We have the fa­cil­ity. We have the in­stru­ments. We have the teach­ers. My goal is to blow the arts out in this school.” ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or bkenny@phillynews.com 

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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