Editor’s note–this piece has been updated.  The original piece erroneously attributed the NASA MISP project to the Drexel Hill’s Future Engineering Team.  We regret any confusion this error may have caused.

If you had to describe to a friend or relative what has happened in this community and to its public schools over the past year, what would you say? You might talk about the School District’s decision last spring to address their budget shortfall by cutting the elementary school arts, music, and physical education programs. Or, you might talk about the community coming together in response, and the endless Board Meetings where, far past their bedtime, children stood on tiptoes to reach the microphone and speak earnestly about what music and arts meant to them. You might talk about the weariness you feel this year at hearing that the District has a $9 million budget shortfall, and is expecting it will have to cut programs to balance its budget. What will it mean? Across the nation, public schools are going through the same thing. Can our embattled District emerge yet again relatively unscathed?

I know that my husband and I chose to move into this community, and to put our children in this School District, and we are proud that they are here. Every time I attend a School Board meeting and student successes and achievements are highlighted, my family’s decision to live here is validated.

Some of you might say that the community is changing. A day doesn’t go by, it seems, without another negative story about the Upper Darby community or its schools showing up in the news. You might share that people in your family are wondering when you plan to move. You might talk about your wishes that you could afford private school, and your concerns about whether your child can indeed thrive as he or she travels through the District’s elementary, middle, and high school.

Those of us who have been paying close attention to public education and community issues have likely been hurt by everything that has occurred over this past year. As events have unfolded since last April, there has been an inordinate amount of negative press attention to Upper Darby, highlighting both the District’s foibles as well as safety challenges both in the schools and in the community. While we might welcome the news coverage for its ability to keep pressure on the District’s administrators, it bears asking if our views of our School District and community have been unwittingly tainted by the constant negativity of our local press. We all know that media outlets tend to overly focus on negative stories, often to the detriment of those that are positive. This creates a perception of “truth” not entirely based in reality—so have some of us lost our perspective, and sight of the strengths of our District and community all together?

This should be of grave concern to anyone living in this community, as inevitably we become story tellers ourselves, complaining to our friends and family members, and repeating the negative storylines that threaten to bring down our community.

Imagine you are a young family, planning to buy a home, moving to this area. Of course, like most of us, you want the best home you can afford. Maybe you want to live close to the city. Perhaps you want to live in a diverse community. Perhaps you value the arts and have heard that the District has a reputation of strong arts programming. There are some beautiful homes in this community right outside of Philadelphia. But now, you start to do a little more research, you listen to the news, you hear from your friends that this is a District that is “going downhill”, you read that several schools are rated as “Failing” by the State. Do you move here, or into a neighboring community—compromising on the house itself because you are more confident in what that District can offer?

As the writer of this piece, I think of such families and realize we are at a critical juncture. The housing market is taking off across the country, but are homes in our community selling, or are they sitting idle? Take heed, my friends—we don’t want to unwittingly sell ourselves short. If families decide they don’t want to move here because of the School District, our community is truly in trouble.

I know that my husband and I chose to move into this community, and to put our children in this School District, and we are proud that they are here. Every time I attend a School Board meeting and student successes and achievements are highlighted, my family’s decision to live here is validated. Our School District and schools are teeming with excellence. Anybody who attended the recent Upper Darby High School production of Beauty and the Beast will attest to the incredible talent of the award-winning drama program, under Harry Deitzler’s direction, and the award-winning orchestra, under the leadership of Barbara Benglian. At the March 2013 Board Meeting, we heard that the Upper Darby High School Cheerleading Team won 4th place in Junior Varsity (JV) Nationals, and 3rd place in Varsity Nationals. That means that our cheerleaders are considered the third best in the nation. We also heard that the High School wrestling team has been named the Central League Champions six years in a row, and that their coach was named Central League Coach of the Year 2013. We met the Drexel Hill Middle School’s Future Cities Engineering Team who, under the direction of Dr. George Hight, won the “People’s Choice Award” at the Philadelphia Future City Regional Competition in January.  We learned that high school teacher Roseann Burns’s three fall semester gifted classes completed original research through NASA’s Mars Student Imaging Project (MISP). All three groups’ projects are featured on NASA’s website in the “Best of” category as examples for other schools on how to do research: http://marsed.mars.asu.edu/msip-team-results/bestof. And finally, we met the ten-member team of the High School Future Business Leaders of America, a group of students with incredible poise who took first place at the Regional Leadership Conference, besting teams from Chichester, Garnet Valley, Haverford, Interboro, Marple-Newtown, Penncrest, Pennwood, Radnor, Ridley, and Springfield.

You might wonder why the media doesn’t focus on these regional, state-wide, and national success stories. Good question—please ask it every chance you get. For these are the stories that matter, and the stories that must be told. We must take stock of the importance of “messaging” if we are to win the hearts of families considering their prospects. We must let our children know that we are proud of the schools they attend. Please, take time to contact your local representatives and ask them to highlight community and District successes. Please note when the media becomes overly focused on negative stories, and raise concerns by writing letters to the editor.

And please, become a story teller yourself—remember, young families are out there, looking for communities to raise their children. Our District is a success, and our community is thriving. Spread the word!

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3 Responses to The Story That Matters: Upper Darby School District’s Hidden Success Stories

  1. Sally Patterson says:

    Well written and tells the story of a district where parents need to come together and decide this is their district and can be made greater than ever imagined….this can happen when parents, teachers and students decide to make it happen.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Imagine how public school districts across this country would benefit from Laurie’s well-written, heart-felt support of her childrens’ school. She emphasizes the good things going on and minimizes the imperfections. The good far outweighs that which is imperfect. Any school, family, community or government can always improve both perception and performance. That’s a good thing – people identifying where improvement needs to be done and then working together to achieve it. Parents of children in public schools need to be more willing to publicly support their schools. Laurie is one fine example of a parent who had the courage to stand up and be heard. Congratulations to Laurie! Well-done.

  3. Laurie says:

    Thank you! While I deeply wish that public education was funded more equitably in Pennsylvania, and that our District and others like ours could be saved from the myriad of difficulties it is currently undergoing, I do see one potential good coming out of the experience, at least in Upper Darby. I think many of us have become more involved than we would have otherwise in the civic life of this community, and that really is an important example for our children.

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