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.
HE’S IN THE BIG LEAGUES
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.
DANGER LINGERS, DWINDLES
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.”
THE BIG 10
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.
YOU’VE GOT THE LOOK
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.
LOOKING TO BRIGHTER DAYS
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 firstname.lastname@example.org