You hear a lot about how cities like Philadelphia have a tough time finding and retaining their teachers. This is a very real problem. A study conducted by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future found that 70 percent of
teachers in Philadelphia leave the city within six years. Well, at Northwood Academy Charter School in Frankford, Philadelphia, 70 percent of the teachers have worked here for at least eight of the school's 11 years. That’s not a typo—70 percent. So what is it about Northwood that makes it such a special place in which to teach and learn? One word: community. When we started the school in 2005, we wanted it to be a place where students would feel safe and happy. We wanted a staff of teachers who would love and nurture their charges. We wanted teachers who genuinely like and respect children. That shouldn’t be too much to ask, right? Unfortunately, many of the families in our community had been getting the short end of the stick when it comes to education. Since Northwood’s founding, we have been dedicated to changing that. As a staff, we are
united in the belief that all children—regardless of background—
can learn and achieve. We don’t make excuses or lower expectations. Furthermore, we believe that every child in the building belongs to every adult. Every employee is here in the service of children. We also work diligently to develop and maintain strong partnerships with our families. This strong foundation supports all of Northwood's stakeholders—big and little.
Advocates for Our Students
How do we select these awesome teachers? The first level of interviews are carried out by Northwood teachers themselves. First right of refusal belongs to those who are already on the team. If the fit seems right, those teachers advocate for the candidate. Our teachers are very serious about what they do and they make sure that anyone who joins them shares their level of passion and commitment. This makes all of our teachers tireless advocates for our students. Within the interview process, one of the most important questions we ask is, "What are you willing to contribute to the community outside of excellent teaching?" That question has brought about a drama club, robotics club, crocheting club, beginner, intermediate and advanced sewing clubs, Beauty and Brains Club, Minecraft Club, chess club, mosaic tile club, scrapbooking club, skills and drills club (for those students who aren't quite ready for JV or varsity basketball), French club, Science Synergy Club, Solar Car Club...and that is hardly exhaustive! We give our teachers the freedom to execute their classroom vision and provide them the tools they need to make Northwood a learning sanctuary. Grade partners and content teams have weekly scheduled collaboration time to share strategies and ideas as well as the support of the administration to accomplish their teaching and extracurricular goals. No one is alone. Since we’re a charter school we have a lot of room to innovate and we always encourage teachers to take advantage of that. Our approach is simple: If an idea works for children, it works for us. Even after 11 years, ideas are still flowing. We remain eager to stretch out and try new things. That zeal and passion to improve creates an environment that is perfect for teaching and learning. Given that, it’s no surprise that our teachers stay year after year.
It's Not All About Work
And, it's not all work and no play. Just a couple of weeks ago we held a March Madness-style Connect Four Tournament with all of the classes from first through eighth grade. We played music, danced between matches and cheered on classmates—the final round was between a second-grader and a sixth-grader. It was great! Our children love being here so much that it’s frequently a challenge getting them on the buses at the end of the day—even on the last day of school. That’s what it’s all about for us. While our test scores are some of the highest in the city, that’s not our ultimate goal—we want our students to be happy and successful in their lives, whether that’s in college, in jobs or with their families. Our alumni regularly come to visit in very high numbers. That’s how we know we’re doing our job. What I say to people who ask me about my job is, "I have three kids that I own and 792 that I rent...I love my job!" That's sincerely how I feel because for teachers, students, staff and parents—the whole community—Northwood truly feels like home.
Photo courtesy of Northwood Academy Charter School.
Pamela Friedman, M.Ed., is the director of student services at Northwood Academy Charter School.