Philly Principal Turns Relocation into Literacy Opportunity

Principal Marco Zanoni
AMY Northwest Middle School
Academy for the Middle Years
Philadelphia, Pa.

When Philadelphia school AMY Northwest had to relocate at the beginning of the school year, what some saw was an unkempt, neglected building that presented challenges. But what Principal Marco Zanoni saw was opportunity – the opportunity to increase the school's impressive literacy efforts through the additional space offered by the new venue.

In its previous home, the special-admissions school had only a media room. The new location, however, offers Marco's 270 sixth- through eighth-grade students a library where they can visit throughout the day, even during lunch breaks.

With no librarian, Marco says he, his wife, and their daughter worked weekends over the summer assigning Dewey Decimal numbers, stocking shelves, creating thematic bulletin boards, and “organizing books that are from the glorious confusion of our two newly merged libraries,” Marco says.

High-level district officials even got in on the act. District Library Content Specialist Rachel Nocito joined Dr. Betty Ann Creighton, executive director of health and physical education for the district, in helping set up the new space. “I was honored that they made my priority their priority,” Marco says. “They worked for two solid weeks opening hundreds of boxes.”

Parents and siblings of students even got involved, cutting out letters for decorations. “It was a collaborative labor of love that I will remember for years to come,” he says.

Marco then recruited faculty members to volunteer their time to keep the library staffed. “The library is a real point of pride,” Marco admits. “We even created our own library passes,” he boasts.

"I'll go to bat for anything the school needs," Marco promised students and families. As the 33-year-old magnet school braced for the move, which began last May, Marco reassured his school community that “AMY Northwest will continue to be the nurturing and family environment that it has grown to be over the years and reinforce our motto, ‘small enough to know you and large enough to serve you.’"

Co-principal Michael Garafalo says Marco's pledge was heartfelt. “Marco looks at his school as his family; his students are his kids.”

Marco shares the credit for sense of family that is inherent to the school’s culture. “The family feel that we have sustained here at AMY is a true testament to our faculty as an engaged and dedicated staff,” he says.

Even in light of such supportiveness, Marco knew that the transition to the 18th-century building would be no easy task. However, what Marco saw was how the additional space afforded opportunities for educational growth. “We’re still getting used to all this space,” he admits.

Faculty, staff, and volunteers – including Marco and Michael – spent the summer cleaning and upgrading the building to prepare it for the school year. Interactive whiteboards were installed in every classroom as Marco and his team transformed their new home into an optimal learning environment for their students.

Newly armed with unfettered library access, AMY Northwest students also benefit from literacy classes, which are part of a core curriculum taught to all three grades. Students have 90-minute literacy blocks five days a week. Seventh- and eighth-graders have an additional writing block that provides a total of 135 minutes of literacy instruction three days a week. Students also participate in Emerging Scholars Enrichment clusters that cover skills that include research paper writing, journalism, and poetry.

In addition, as Marco’s diverse student population prepares for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, Marco and his faculty members volunteer their time on Saturday mornings to provide intervention in literacy and math.

“We try to create a culture of urgency,” Marco explains. “My kids come from all over the city. We have some kids who are voracious readers, and others who will never pick up a book. We’re always pushing them to read and read and read.” Encouraging students to read longer passages is part of that push.

The cornerstone of Marco’s literacy initiatives is the Book Fair, which provided an inauguration of sorts for the newly relocated school in December. The students set their goal at 300 books – slightly more than one per student. Their reward: seeing their principal and co-principal donning red hair.

“Does the red wash out, or will I be stuck with it?” Marco asked Michael after their students chose their reward.

Marco gave a sneak peek of the Fair to his teachers, who then came up with a list of top picks that Marco promoted to families via the website and a robocall. The teacher whose list garnered the most purchases received a reward donated by a nearby market.

The principal also linked the Fair to a Drop Everything and Read event, at which students were expected to read their newly acquired books during a class period.

As a result of the school’s academic rigor – which helped it achieve Adequate Yearly Progress in 2012 for the eighth year in a row – the school ranked No. 1 in the online curriculum First in Math for Philadelphia and all of Pennsylvania, and No. 2 nationwide. “As a result, my students are accepted to the very best special-admission academic schools in our great city,” Marco shares.

“We have high expectations for our students, parents, and for ourselves,” Marco says, “because as the Northwest Region's motto states: ‘Excellence Is Our Only Option!’”
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