Renaissance Underway at Chester Upland School District

Chester-Upland School District is experiencing change that could be monumental this school year.

The man behind it all is Gregory G. Shannon, the district's new superintendent. He's affectionately known as the "turn around superintendent." 

Thus far, he is living up to that promise, but the challenge might appear daunting to most.

The district is one of the worst performers, academically, in the Commonwealth. Out of Pennsylvania's 498 school districts, Chester-Upland ranked 496th for PSSA scores in 2012, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times. The graduation rate has not been above 50% for the last three years. The Delaware County communities served by the district -- Chester, Upland and Chester Township -- for years have been under-served due to the history of poor management and severe financial problems.

Shannon started working for Chester Upland in mid-July, but began volunteering in June.

This summer, Shannon rolled up his sleeves and directed all school district employees to participate in a reclamation campaign. He and the staff hit the streets and begin selling the Chester Upland School District to parents. 

Yes, selling as in door-to-door.

The district's administration building was emptied, only a receptionist stayed in the building when the community outreach days took place. The staff walked the mall, downtown Chester, knocked on doors and talked to everyone who would listen to Shannon's "44 reasons to enroll in Chester-Upland School District."

Reason number one: long-standing reputation as an excellent elementary school.

Reason number thirty-four: cyber option at school site.

Reason number forty: discipline with dignity.

"Nobody even thinks to do this -- treat you like the customer, ask for your business and work hard to keep it," said Shannon. 

The salesmanship worked.

Nine hundred additional students registered for the 2013-14 school year, about a 20 percent increase in enrollment. The total student body as of Sept. 6 is 3,129. 

The Chester Upland School District had seen an annual five percent enrollment decline in recent years and was judged to be one of the Commonwealth's most "severely distressed districts academically and financially," according to Chief Recovery Officer Joe Watkins. The increase in student population by 900 students immediately reversed the district's plan to close two elementary schools.

Shannon has led a charge to change the district's "attitudes and philosophy," embracing all the district's children as assets.

"We've got lots of activities. We are secure and we learn a lot," said Kamani Johns, a fifth grade student at Margaret Stetser Elementary School. Johns wants to be a lawyer and credits her teachers for helping her create a goal. 

Change sounds simple.

For Watkins, Shannon's vibrant approach to learning is warmly welcomed and satisfying to observe. 

Shannon has implemented a strategy to work with the community and build accountability across the board for teachers, parents, staff, students and himself. He wants the results of that strategy to facilitate a change in culture, raise everyone's level of expectation, move away from anecdotal analysis and move toward data, allow for mid-course corrections to the curriculum and cheer wildly for every single victory. 

"Chester is a city serious about its pride. We are here to help the students to shine and uncover it," said Claudia Averette, chief of staff for the Chester Upland School District.

Shannon is Philadelphia born-and-raised and most recently worked as the deputy chief of the office of student discipline, hearings and expulsions in the Philadelphia School District. He started his educational career as a middle school teacher 26 years ago in Philadelphia. 

Shannon says he intends to acknowledge Chester-Upland students on the honor roll as well as those "on a roll" (those who've showed signs of improvement) at forthcoming student assemblies. 

The changes have been embraced by staff, and perhaps easier to implement because of the close-knit community. 

"We've got amazing kids and supportive families. Because we are small, we are like a family," said Stetser Elementary School principal Janet Baldwin.

Contact Sarah Glover at 610-668-5580, or follow @skyphoto on Twitter.

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