Parallel worlds: Two schools a short journey apart
At Lower Merion, students have steady support. That's hard to sustain at Overbrook.
by Bill Hangley, Jr.
The two schools are less than four miles apart. But what separates Lower Merion High from Overbrook High is more than distance.
On a balmy night in early September, the parents of new freshmen are streaming through Lower Merion’s gleaming glass doors. They file down the halls into a soaring auditorium that smells like a new car. There, Principal Sean Hughes welcomes them to a brand new building and a world of high expectations.
“There’s a pool, there’s a greenhouse, there’s a courtyard. All of the classrooms are state-of-the-art, with the kind of technology you’d expect to find at a university,” he said. Lower Merion is the region’s highest-spending district, and it shows. But tonight, Hughes and his staff spend almost no time talking about their impressive new facility.
Instead, they talk about people. For a full hour, they lay out the web of support that helps keep the school’s graduation rates near 100 percent, with eight out of ten graduates going to four-year colleges.
They describe supervised study halls, teachers’ office hours, and a battery of counselors and services. They introduce online report cards and assignment guides. They promise every child a personal counselor, scheduled guidance meetings, and a laptop computer to access the school’s digital network.
In the audience is Juanita Kerber, a new resident whose daughter just finished four happy years at a Philadelphia public school, Greenfield Elementary. Her qualms about the transition didn’t last long. “I met with her guidance counselor last week,” Kerber said. “And she said to Jasmine, ‘With your grades, have you ever considered honors classes?’ Instantly, I felt that the support was here to make you better than what you are.”
Also here are Sharon and Jerry Jacobs, who are sending their second child to Lower Merion. “The school won’t let the kids fall through the cracks,” said Sharon. “They’ve got the resources, and the expectation is for them to live up to their abilities.”
“Nobody likes paying taxes,” he said. But the school’s high quality draws people, and “the property values more than compensate for the investments.”
In nearby Ardmore, Alicia Goff lives with her father in a modest twin on a quiet street. The Lower Merion senior is happy in school and excited about her prospects. But she says her story could have been much different if the district hadn’t intervened in middle school, when her reading problems emerged. Her teachers steered her into a special class. “I hated it,” she said. “But it worked. I’m really grateful for that.”
Once in high school, focused attention and a carefully constructed curriculum got her past her academic problems. “They do consistency,” said her father, Roger. “And they can afford to sustain it, where other schools would just let it fall apart.”
Alicia knows she’s fortunate. “I have friends in the Philly system,” she said. “My friend was telling me about the cafeteria in her school. A bunch of the stools were broken, and there was nowhere to sit. The school would say, ‘We had to spend the money on textbooks.’
“It’s a whole different world,” said Alicia – just a few minutes away.
Markeeta Hudgens agrees. “Lower Merion is not far from Overbrook High School – not far at all,” she said. “How can you be not even 10 minutes away from another school, and have so much less?”
Hudgens, who graduated from Overbrook last June, is asking a profound question.
Wealthy, White suburban school districts abut poor ones serving students of color all over the country, and it’s common to see stark differences in their property values and their ability to raise taxes to pay for schools.
Years of government policies at all levels played a role in those divides, though they sometimes seem like part of the natural order. But many young people, like Hudgens, see the unfairness in it.
Now, a few days after Labor Day, she’s sitting in a lounge at Cheyney University. College was a priority she set for herself. “I know it sounds crazy, but in many people’s lives, we don’t have people pushing us,” she said. “Even our parents.”
Hudgens credits Overbrook with providing just enough. Honors classes honed her writing skills. Hard-working teachers gave her respect and support. Advisors in the Student Success Center – a room with a handful of computers and a small staff, funded by a federal grant, open to students on their lunch breaks – guided her through college applications. “It would have been hard, doing it alone,” she said. “It would have got done, but maybe not in this way.”
But she also feels keenly that at a school with a 47 percent graduation rate, she’s the exception, not the rule.
“Kids get scared. They don’t know if they can make it,” she said. “With their fear, they pull out.”