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Fairhill graduates its final class

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by Mark McHugh

“Welcome to Fairhill Elementary’s final graduation,” said Robert Harris, a special education teacher at the school, addressing the crowd at Visitation Church in North Philadelphia on Thursday morning.

It was an emotional day for many as the 37 members of Fairhill’s graduating 8th-grade class said goodbye for good to their school, which is slated to close this summer in the midst of a budget crisis plaguing the School District.

Harris, who has served the school for 19 years, is having difficulty accepting the closure of the school, which has been open since 1897, though only in its current building since 1969.

“I kind of broke down yesterday,” Harris said. “It saddens me because of all the memories we’ve had, all the children’s lives that we’ve had an opportunity to touch.”

Members of the school's community, many shedding tears, shared memories during a ceremony that included a poignant slideshow of moments hard to forget and friendships formed over their years at Fairhill.

The people at Fairhill's graduation seemed to agree on one thing: Their school was distinct, it was special. 

“I’ve been in schools where the teachers have been close. I’ve been in schools where the students have been close -- here, it’s more like a family,” said Omar Rose, a 7th- and 8th-grade math teacher at the school. “None of the other schools in the community are really as involved as Fairhill was.”

Leading up to the ceremony, students hugged, slapped hands and laughed together. Thrilled to see their mentors, they exchanged hugs and jokes. The teachers, equally social, also cared for the children, assisting them with dress malfunctions and offering warm compliments.

Someone who knows the school community better than anyone is principal Darlene Lomax-Garrett. She started at Fairhill six years ago as an interim principal and was called back for a permanent position shortly after.

“It’s very difficult to sum up in words the emotion that I feel at this juncture in my professional career,” Lomax-Garrett said. “We’ve touched each other and helped each other become better people. They’re inspiring, and it’s very disheartening to think about their future and the uphill battle that we face to fund public education.”

Lomax-Garrett was not optimistic about what the recent slew of school closures means to the community and society at large.

“If we as a school district and as a nation don’t quickly get our priorities in order, we have doomed them to a life they don’t deserve,” she said in regard to her students. “Any society throughout history that has not valued their young … is certainly on its way to ruin.”

She added that no standardized test can accurately gauge the education of children. Fairhill failed to make the “adequate yearly progress” benchmark last year. Poor academic performance, along with an underutilized and neglected building, was a major factor in its closing, according to Lomax-Garett. Like many others, she said she questions the value of these test-driven measures of learning and is disheartened by the fact that they are instrumental in determining whether a school will remain open.

“Why are we basing our children’s futures on somebody’s idea of what they should know at a particular point in time?” she said.

Despite her qualms with the system, Lomax-Garrett said she is still inspired by the will to shape the minds of future contributors to society.

“My graduates today inspire me to remain committed to what I do,” she said. 

Mark McHugh is an intern at the Notebook.

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