By William O. Daniel, Jr.
In the 1840s architect John Carver received the drawings and measurements for St. Michael’s Church in Longstanton, Cambridgeshire, built circa 1230. He was commissioned in the 1840s to supervise the construction of St. James the Less Church, Philadelphia, following these designs. Nearly 170 years later, the soul of this building brings forth new life as St. James School.
In September 2011, St. James School opened doors of opportunity to students most in need of hope. SJS is one of ten members of the Episcopal Urban School Alliance. Like most of these schools, SJS uses a tuition-free model, relying solely on grants, donations, and volunteer support. It began as a mission of the Anglo-Catholic St. Mark’s Church, Philadelphia.
Based in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Philadelphia, SJS is surrounded by violence and poverty. In the midst of this instability Laura Hoffman-Dimery, principal, and David Kasievich, head of school, ride their bikes each year in search of students who need SJS. “We’re doing something to address the avoidable shortfalls in academic achievement,” Kasievich said. Those shortfalls “impose heavy and often tragic consequences — lower earnings, poorer health, and higher rates of incarceration.” SJS does not offer handouts; it gives students the time and space for new habits and a new way of imagining their life in the world.
As chaplain of another St. James, the Episcopal boarding school in Hagerstown, Maryland, I recently took a group of students to SJS to tutor and serve as aides in the classroom. Kasievich gave us a glimpse of his students’ lives. After learning of increasing difficulties at home with two students, Kasievich visited their residence one afternoon, only to find that there was no furniture and that, although they had a mother, their older brother was their primary caregiver. Rather than swooping in to “save the family,” Kasievich and volunteers from SJS began offering assistance, but kept the decisions in the family’s hands — empowering rather than delimiting. Eventually, with the help of volunteers, SJS provided basic needs for the family, including beds for the children and a couch.
Serving students in an urban environment fraught with so many difficulties is demanding on teachers and administrators. Although life at our school in Hagerstown can seem all-consuming, teachers still have a good deal of flexibility and time off, and they work with students from fairly stable backgrounds. Teachers in SJS have little downtime, and dealing with students whose home life is in constant flux exacts a saintly patience. Nevertheless, how many teachers will use the unexpected break of a snow day to rally a group of students from the neighborhood for sledding, as one teacher from SJS did?
I met Kasievich in the summer of 2012, and we immediately began dreaming of a partnership between our schools. So far this partnership has involved three service learning opportunities for students from Hagerstown: tutoring, working around the campus, helping parents find jobs, and contributing toward a new science lab. It has involved mutual prayer and student trips from Philadelphia to experience life in a boarding school, with an eye toward students attending St. James, Hagerstown, after graduating from SJS, Philadelphia. Our schools need each other. We need one another’s prayer and we need to be empowered by each other.
When David and I first spoke, we did not realize that we were embarking on new territory for Episcopal schools. As far as we can tell, and as corroborated by Dan Hieschman, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, our schools were the first to begin forming such a partnership. We need to find ways to join together to create more schools like St. James, Philadelphia.
The Rev. William O. Daniel, Jr., is chaplain of St. James School, Hagerstown, Maryland.
Image courtesy of St. James School, Philadelphia.