Monday, October 24, 2005

Philadelphia's Third Saint

I was asked a good while back for the name of someone who, in my view, exemplifies the social gospel.... And I respectfully submit the name of Sister of Mercy Mary Scullion as one of those rare people who genuinely lives the Eucharistic charism.

Sister Mary is the founder of Project H.O.M.E. here in Philly. In a nutshell, thanks to her tireless spirit and ability to inspire, she has birthed a series of ventures which have enabled thousands of homeless people seeking a better life to find work, be educated and get the skills they need to contribute to society, build a home of their own and, in turn, to build strong, healthy communities. She is, in short, a wonder, and one of this city's shining assets.

From today's Inky, the intrepid Sister announces her latest partnership. Germantown Academy ("GA," as it's known around these parts) is one of the most exclusive area prep schools, tuition running in the $15K a year range. Project H.O.M.E. is partnering with GA to open a private prep school in North Philadelphia for disadvantaged elementary-age kids.

In what national education officials say will be a first in the country, [GA] and Project H.O.M.E. in September will open a private elementary school in North Philadelphia to prepare talented, low-income youngsters to attend top prep schools....

"Less than 1 percent of the kids who are high school age or younger go to schools like Germantown Academy," said James Connor, head of Germantown Academy. "The idea is to export our educational program and spawn an independent school."

Classes will be limited to a dozen students. Teachers will use Germantown Academy's curriculum, and Project H.O.M.E. will provide social services and support for students and their families.

Although parents pay between $10,200 and $19,335 to send children to Germantown Academy, tuition at Partnership will be on a sliding scale based on parents' ability to pay. "Everybody will pay something, but it could be as little as $100," Connor said, even though the cost for each student is $12,000.

The school already has raised more than $400,000 of the $2 million it needs to cover the first two years of its operating costs from foundations and private contributions. No public funds are involved.

Project H.O.M.E already runs an after-school program at the Honickman Learning Center.

"We see this as another educational resource for kids in our community," Scullion said.

The Rev. Keith Williams Sr., pastor of the Nazarene Baptist Church in Nicetown and a Germantown Academy parent, said all children deserved the educational opportunities his children had had at the private school.

"We hope to bring those kind of experiences to kids in the area of North Philadelphia," said Williams, who is serving on a joint board overseeing the Community Partnership School.

Although plans call for the new school to grow to include fifth grade with two sections for each grade, it will open in the fall with 36 children from pre-kindergarten to first grade.

Students will be selected using the same admissions process that Germantown Academy uses with its youngest students, which includes testing, observations and teacher recommendations. Connor said the goal was finding students "who have the best chance of being successful in this program."

He said educators from Project H.O.M.E.'s after-school program would guide families through admissions.

James Nevels, chairman of the Philadelphia Reform Commission, which oversees the city's public schools, and Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, endorse the new school. "I support any educational initiative that benefits children," Vallas said.

See, people, it's all about opportunity. Thank God, and thank Sister Mary, that some kids who can really shine might just get to live the American dream.

Good news like this makes my idealistic heart weep with joy.



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