About Independence Mission Schools: An Open Letter to “Good” Parents

Ms. Christine Lemongelli teaches her class about grammer.

Hey Mom… How you doing Dad?… Grandmom and Grandpop I need to bend your ear… I just want a few minutes of your time. I know time is a precious commodity and you don’t have a lot to spare.  But I want to share some important information about urban educational opportunities for your children and grandchildren.  So while I know you’re busy, please take a few moments and consider what I’m about to say…

Every day you worry. You’re afraid. You’re always anxious. Will today be the day? Will the school call and inform you that something bad has happened to your child? You watch the news… You see the sexual assaults… You read about staff members being knocked unconscious… You see kids protesting just to keep basic amenities in place…

You have been diligent about instilling the proper values in your child. I know you don’t play games when it comes to raising your child.  Honesty, compliance with rules, sensitivity to the feelings of others, control over impulses and acceptance of responsibility for his/her behavior have been reinforced from the moment they entered this world. You are a good parent. You take it very seriously. It shows. Your child follows rules and meets behavioral expectations in the home, school and community on a consistent basis. He/she has never exhibited any illegal or antisocial behaviors. Your child is a good kid.  Yet, you worry.. all day, every day.

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More than anything else, you seek an educational setting where your child can focus on attaining and maintaining a level of academic performance that is commensurate with his/her intellectual ability. You understand the need for a positive and safe educational environment.  With that in place, your child will flourish.  However, finding (and affording) such a placement has been difficult.

In many ways, you feel trapped… You love the city. You live in West Philly… You live in North Philly… You live in South Philly… You live in Germantown… You live in Mount Airy… You work hard to make sure your kids are well-fed, well-clothed and the bills are paid.  However, sometimes it feels like your walking up a down escalator. Every time you get paid, you see where the City of Philadelphia has taken nearly 4% of your money. Every time you spend some money you see the City of Philadelphia has taken another 2% of your money, on top of the 6% that goes to the State of Pennsylvania.

It’s enough to make you want a drink or smoke… But they will get you at the register, yet again, if those are your vices… When you buy that glass of wine, cocktail or beer, the City of Philadelphia takes another 10% of your money. If you buy a pack of cigarettes, the City of Philadelphia takes another $2 of your hard earn funds. It feels like you can’t win…

It’s tough to make it in Philly. In fact, like most of your friends and neighbors you are working 1.5 or 2 two jobs just to make ends meet. I get it.

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More than anything else, you would like to find a safe high quality school setting for your child. You want to feel good about dropping your child off every day. For those 7 or 8 eight hours, you want to feel they are safe and sound.  You need a school that maintains a healthy balance between accomplishing academic goals and meeting your child’s social and emotional needs. Despite the high cost of living in Philadelphia such schools are very few and far between.

I may have found an answer to some your prayers.

Independence Mission Schools (IMS) is a non-profit organization managing a network of 15 Catholic elementary schools across the city of Philadelphia.  These schools, formerly run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, are beacons of hope to their communities; they provide a high-quality, low-cost education to more than 4,700 children of all faiths from many of the City’s most under-served neighborhoods, delivering opportunity to these children and their families.

Some of you may already know about these shining lights of hope in the midst of our rapidly decaying urban educational system.  The Independence Mission Schools have seen an increase of approximately 1,000 students over the past 12 months.  So, clearly the word is slowly getting out amongst our folk.  But for the most part, they have relied on parents talking to other parents and alums sharing their positive experiences.  Word of mouth has been their most effect marketing strategy.

I’m a firm believer in “catching” people doing “good things.”  Positive stories deserve at least as much attention as the negative tales that bombard us on a daily basis.

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Over the past couple of years, local print and television media have focused their sights, almost exclusively, on school violence, cheating scandals, poor test scores crumbling facilities and an unprecedented budget crisis prompting massive teacher and counselor layoffs. Relying solely on “mainstream” media outlets, one gets the sense that there is no hope for urban education.  The prevailing narrative would have you believe that we’ve abandoned all hope for adequately educating low to moderate income inner-city Black and Brown kids.

Meanwhile, in neighborhoods all across the city Independence Mission Schools have been delivering high quality educational services to an overwhelmingly African-American, Latino and Asian cohort of high achieving and well behaved students.

Over the past week, I have visited four Independence Mission Schools. Al Cavalli, the President of IMS, invited me to visit schools in different parts of the city. I toured St. Rose of Lima near the Overbrook section, St. Martin de Porres in North Philly, Our Mother of Sorrows/St. Ignatius (OSSI) in West Philly and St. Thomas Aquinas in South Philly. At each school, the Principal set aside over two hours out of their busy schedules to provide me with a detailed background of the mission and workings of their respective schools.

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I was introduced to every teacher and every class in these schools. The students in these schools are representative of the neighborhoods in which they are located. St. Rose, St. Martin and OSSI are 99%-100% African-American. St. Vincent’s student body reflects the tremendous diversity prevailing in a reinvigorated South Philadelphia. There are Black, Vietnamese, Chinese, and White students learning together.

The children, without fail greeted me with welcoming smiles. In unison, each class said ”Good morning Mr. Wilson, welcome to St. Rose/St. Martin/OSSI or St. Thomas… God Bless you!” They were attentive and fully engaged in the lessons. Their eyes were bright. They were learning! The young boys, without fail, initiated the “pound hug” – a stylized version of the handshake, almost exclusively performed between two Black males, that consists of a combination of a handshake and one-armed hug. Needless to say, I was impressed. I respected these boys and they respected me.

The level of technology in these schools is a well-kept secret. Every class featured a state of the art “smart board.” Computers and IPads were everywhere.  In classroom after classroom I experienced the feeling of seeing the “light-bulb go on” in the minds of these young scholars. IMS is empowering educators and inspiring life-long learners. Vince Mazzio, Principal at St. Thomas kept reiterating his belief that he is preparing kids for “jobs that don’t exist yet.” We all know he is right. Rarely does one encounter urban educators that are actually “walking the walk” and not just “talking the talk.”

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IMS has created transformative urban learning environments, for today and tomorrow. Upon entering these schools, one immediately realizes they are truly different. We all know the extent to which most Philadelphia public schools are characterized by a persistent pattern of acting out, disruptive or negative attention seeking behaviors.

The social setting in Independence Mission Schools is conducive to learning. Of course, these schools are tuition-based. The cost is approximately $4,000 per year. According to Cavalli, the overwhelming majority of IMS families receive financial assistance. Moreover, payments are spread across 10 months. The typical family pays somewhere between $100-$300 per month.

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My question to you is: What is peace of mind worth? I know it’s tight.  It won’t be easy.  But, let’s keep it real… I see young Black boys walking to and from dysfunctional public schools wearing $150-$250 sneakers every day. I see young girls do the same with $200-$400 hair weaves flowing down their backs. What’s more important?  What truly matters? I guess what I’m asking is: Will it be consumption or investment?

You are a good parent. You care. I know how much your child’s future means to you.  I can help you find a good school for your child. Feel free to contact me via email at delgrecowilson@aol.com. I look forward to helping you lay the foundation for a bright educational future.

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