Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy is a magical place. My colleagues and I were welcomed there after school on Thursday March 13 so that we might audition students from across Western PA for the PMEA Region Orchestra. As we entered classrooms across Collegiate Academy, we were all taken aback. Even though the teachers and the students had left for the day, every classroom was alive.
My audition room was a Chemistry classroom. As the teacher was leaving for the day, I joked about allowing a group of right-brained musicians into such a well cared for classroom. He laughed and said that he had been a member of the marching band, so it was okay. I pointed to a “Coach” sticker on his podium and asked what sport he was involved with. He laughed again. He was the coach for the Science Olympiad team. That week, they had won the regional competition and were heading to States. Good things were clearly happening at Collegiate Academy.
I decided to ask the Associate Dean, Kenneth Nickson, Jr., if I might speak with some teachers over lunch to find out what they do to make this school so special. Mr. Nickson was incredible. He sent out an email to the faculty and over the course of the next 5 hours, I got the education of a lifetime.
Collegiate Academy is situated in Erie PA. It is an urban college-preparatory magnet school. Approximately 500 students apply for 225 freshmen positions. While most of the students hail from Erie proper, students outside of the city limits are able to apply and pay tuition to attend. The students are highly motivated. The teachers are highly motivated. The administrators are highly motivated. Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.
As I headed to lunch, I became more and more nervous. Would these faculty members think that I was a nuisance, usurping time from their lunches? Did I really have anything to add to their conversations? What questions should I be asking? I didn’t need to worry. Within minutes Pam Wiley had taken me under her wing.
Ms. Wiley is a tour de force. She is not only passionate about students’ wellbeing (in the broadest sense of that term) but is also an incredibly thoughtful educator, well versed in the demands and rewards of our profession. Ms. Wiley quickly provided me with the framework of the public education system in Erie, the challenges and the amazing work that is done throughout the entire district. She explained the complexities of a public school district that services an urban area rife with economic challenges. She spoke about great teachers at other schools in the district and then gave me a quick narrative of Collegiate Academy’s history. What Ms. Wiley did not tell me was that she had been critical in the winning of a $1.2 federal grant that will fund fitness centers and training at all 4 of Erie’s high schools. Instead, she shared stories from the annual sophomore lock-in, an overnight that she organizes but that involves almost every faculty member. Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.
This was but the beginning of my education. Over the next hour and a half as the students ate lunch and competed to see who knew the most numbers in pi (after all it was 3-14-15…pi day), I was continuously impressed and amazed by the depth, breadth and caring of the faculty members that I met. Our conversations ranged from the new teacher evaluation system to the cost of Advanced Placement tests, from the difficulty of creating consistent foreign language experiences in elementary and middle schools to challenges in for the arts, from the stress of being a “school of overachievers” (an expression used by many throughout the day) to the enervation of having an administration that encouraged faculty to run with their ideas. With every moment, I became more curious and more inspired.
I should mention that Collegiate Academy does not operate on a bell system. Also, none of their clocks work. It is a weird thing. Students seemingly sense the time and move to their next class. While I wished that I had worn my watch, I eventually found that the whole lack of focus on bells and clocks was somewhat refreshing. Miraculously, the students all seemed to be where they were supposed to be. They all were moving responsibly to their next learning opportunity. The clocks, however, did provide for conversation throughout the rest of the day.
After a quick stop in Mr. Eric Mentges’ highly creative Latin class, I headed to see the student government in action. The student government is run by a veteran teacher, Mr. Russell Taylor and consists of a Student Senate (nine elected members) and homeroom representatives. Unlike our own government, the Collegiate Academy government operates by consensus. To say that the art of debate and conversation is alive and well at Collegiate Academy, is an understatement. Over the course of the 30 minutes that I was in the room, the student government organized a comprehensive clothing drive for children in the Erie elementary school system. Since 2003, Erie has had an 800% increase in the population of refugees from Bhutan and Nepal. As the students discussed the logistics of collecting and cleaning the clothing, I was struck by their attention to each other’s points of discussion, their efficiency in making those points and their overall passion about the task before them. Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.
After the meeting, Mr. Taylor took me on a tour of the Student Art Gallery and Emporium. As with so many things at Collegiate Academy, this room became a reality because someone made an off-handed comment about the artistic talents of the arts students deserving more recognition. Voila…a room full of student art. Although the SAGE is designed to showcase student art, some of the artwork (as well as snacks and water) is available for sale. Where will the proceeds go? To fund new atomic clocks for the school, of course.
The school day was over but I had one more stop to make. I wanted to meet Mrs. Doreen Petri. I had seen her from afar during lunch. She was checking the recycling and composting bins in the lunchroom. Mrs. Petri is a petite woman with more energy in her pinky than I have in my entire body. If environmental science is primarily about understanding processes and systems, Mrs. Petri teaches by example. Her approach to teaching is rooted in understanding and changing systems. Seven years ago, Mrs. Petri created an energy education program in her classroom. The school district saved thousands of dollars simply by having students initiating change not only with their peers but, more importantly with the adults. Since that time Mrs. Petri has helped to create and institute a sustainability movement within the school district. Science curricula from elementary school through high school addresses issues from Erie’s “food deserts” (the schools are plating urban gardens) to recycling (as I witnessed at lunch.) Oh…and since none of the clocks were the correct time, she asked that they be unplugged to save energy. Her vision is empowering. Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.
Because good things are happening at Collegiate Academy, good things are happening for Erie Public Schools. Every single faculty member at Collegiate Academy spoke about Erie as an entire community, not simply their school. The commitment to the wellbeing of the city, the refugees, and the other schools in the district was palpable.
Good things are happening but it is not always easy. My day began with a teacher saying “you can sum us all up in one word…students, staff, teachers…overachievers.”
Good things are happening because the faculty is working at warp speed to prepare students from a wide variety of backgrounds to face the challenges of the future. They are happening because the administration values the faculty’s talents and ideas. Good things are happening because the students are invested in their learning and proud of their school.
However, good things can be difficult. Collegiate Academy has committed, passionate teachers who are balancing the needs of their classrooms, curricula and students with local, state and national initiatives…and paperwork. Throughout my day two concerns were voiced consistently. These teachers were concerned about equal funding in education and they were concerned that they would not be able to sustain creative teaching in their own classrooms. Creativity drives Collegiate Academy. For the sake of the vision of the teachers, the administrators and the students, let's hope that it remains central to the Collegiate Academy experience. Inspiring things are happening at Collegiate Academy.