As a graduate of North Catholic High School and a former employee at the Kensington Culinary Arts High School, I can tell you one thing about public schools in Philly: You can’t learn algebra when you’re chucking the math book at your teacher.
Seriously, for a guy like me coming from North — where the legendary assistant principal, Big Ernie Koschineg, would wreck you if you even looked at the math book the wrong way — the baseline for discipline in the School District of Philadelphia is enough to make my head spin.
On a daily basis in Kensington, I was able to watch good kids — the vast majority of students, for sure — have their education interrupted by gang members, drug dealers and other young criminals.
I mean that literally.
There were more than a few students convicted of crimes and ordered to finish high school in lieu of jail time.
Hip-hop critics say violent rap lyrics negatively influence urban youth. Maybe that’s true, but that influence is nothing compared to sitting next to a couple of convicted dope peddlers in the cafeteria.
Don’t get me wrong, I know a few North grads who went on to be criminals. There could have been more if not for the totalitarian dictatorship of Big Ernie and Father Nicholas Waseline.
Sadly, North Catholic no longer exists, having been closed last year by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because of its ongoing budget blues. But you could walk into North Catholic as a trash-talking kid from the corner and walk out as a reasonably responsible adult. Why? Because North taught you consequences.
I know this personally, since I was a guy who spent a fair amount of time in JUG (Justice Under God, or detention, for the uninitiated).
That’s not to say the staff at Kensington Culinary doesn’t try to teach discipline.
During my time there I worked with school police officer Ryan Smith. He’s a dedicated dude, in stark contrast with the knuckleheaded school police highlighted in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few months ago, and he’s probably the Kensington High School equivalent of Ernie Koschineg. Smith enforced even the most annoying rules, sprinting back and forth while confiscating hoodies and cell phones, not to mention the not-at-all-infrequent moments when Smith was forced to physically engage the bright-eyed, eager-to-learn sociopaths roaming the school.
Despite this, Smith has a way of engaging the kids on a personal level.
He’s from North Philly, home to a sizable chunk of the student population, and he understands where a lot of these kids are coming from. I’d even go as far as to say he serves as something of a role model, and in doing so is forced to work hard.
But even with his exhausting effort, and the efforts of the school’s dean and principal — both great guys — the level of discipline in Kensington can never match that of North.
But the problem doesn’t start with the staff at Kensington Culinary or its troublemaking students.
It’s the system.
If I’m a Philly public-school student and I threaten a staff member, I’ll probably get a slap on the wrist.
I know this because, as a staff member, I’ve been threatened. In fact, I was threatened on a regular basis, just like any other staff member, and eventually you get tired of reporting it to your overworked higher-ups.
The system — by design, not necessity — doesn’t have the means to discipline students for such minor infractions as cursing in a teacher’s face or threatening their well-being.
Those are essentially minor infractions in the public school system, even though representatives of the system will never admit it.
Cursing out a teacher or threatening the maintenance worker might earn you a day of detention (that is, if you decide to go), or maybe a short suspension.
But that activity could get you kicked out of North.
In the public school system, if you get kicked out you’ll be in another school shortly after. Like our city’s revolving-door prison system, except with 13-year-olds.
Oh, and when the principal kicks a student out and sends him to another school, he has to take another troubled student in return.
In this system, principals actually trade problem kids.
In the end, you really can’t compare a Philly public school to North Catholic, or to any other private or charter school.
Unless there is a fundamental change in the way discipline is handed out in the public system, the students there, no matter how hard they work, may still have to sit next to a criminal or a sociopath after the bell rings. ••
Riverward Rants reflects the opinions of Joe Quigley, a Fishtown resident, area native and writer of the Web site PhillyNeighbor.com, where he makes cynical (and uncensored) comments about life in the river wards while shamelessly peddling his novel, “Holdout.” He can be reached at JQuig1984@gmail.com.