At first glance, the school at St. James seems full of contradictions.
It provides a private school education in a low-income section of North Philadelphia. It recruits students not with lavish Open House events, but by going door-to-door in the neighborhood, seeking kids who don’t have access to quality schools.
It’s an institution run by a church but it refuses to be a charity school, preferring instead to rely on fundraising and teaching its students self-sufficiency.
While the neighborhood around it is full of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, St. James has a garden, beehives, and live chickens. The school’s 19th Century walls house a neighborhood kitchen by one of Philadelphia’s most innovative, upscale markets, DiBruno Brothers.
The neat private school uniforms worn by students suggest a New England prep school “but at St. James they provide order, professionalism, school and student pride”, Head of School David Kasievich explains.
Unfortunately, with challenges often come anger & distrust — but Kasievich and his recruiters work patiently with local parents to help them understand the school’s unique school model and mission. For them, it’s a small price to pay to discover and nurture children with “that spark of curiosity.”
“When we see curious eyes — peeking over at us, wheels turning. That’s a child who can succeed at St. James. That’s our mission: to give that child stuck in a low-performing neighborhood school the best possible opportunities for succeeding and positively influencing others.”
That’s quite a mission, especially in an area where many middle class parents are desperate for affordable education options. Private schools near East Falls cost from $15,000 – $20,000 per student. At St. James, a year’s tuition would cost in excess of $21,000 but, thanks to a robust donor network, each family contributes only about $300 per year.
Has St. James ever thought of opening its doors to paying students?
Kasievich admits he’s been tempted — in fact, since the school’s opened, East Falls parents often show up at his office, child in tow, inquiring about enrollment. And he often thinks wow, what they could do with just one full tuition…
But they’re not that kind of school. “Tuition-based is a whole different school model. Right now we’re focused on helping the kids most in need. Maybe at some point, we’ll figure out a way to accommodate some tuition students. We’ll see how we grow.”
And boy have they been growing — with roots firmly planted in the neighborhood.
When St. James was undergoing the repairs needed to open its doors, Kasievich volunteered to assist and even slept in a tent on the school grounds during summer camps for neighborhood kids. When he was hired by the school in 2010, he insisted on living on campus. He’s since been joined by at least half of the administrative and teaching staff.
The group believes that living nearby helps them teach students by connecting them with the neighborhood’s people and businesses. Plus, communal meals are fantastic opportunities for staff to exchange info and support each other. “We’ve got a very diverse staff, all different ages & backgrounds. Every day’s about sharing stories, and finding new ways to relate.”
Underlying the school’s approach is a faith-based mission in the Episcopal tradition to serve the least. It’s why Kasievich got involved seven years ago and it was that faith that helped him weather the scariest decision of his life: taking over as Head of School. “When Father Sean asked me to take the job, I asked him how much was in the bank, and he said $12,000,” Kasievich deadpanned, “It certainly made me think twice.”
Father Sean chose wisely. Thanks in part to Kasievich’s fundraising prowess and a wide and varied list of donors (first and foremost is the “heart of St. James”, and its first benefactor, Dr. Audrey Evans), St. James now has well over $1 million dollars in its annual budget.
It’s allowed the school to offer a wide range of classes, particularly in the arts.
“I’m really proud of the art our students produce, and I don’t mean to brag, but I think our music program is one of the best in the city” (because of a partnership with St. Mark’s Church in Philadelphia, the St. James choir receives rigorous training, often singing as part of Sunday morning Mass at St. Mark’s).
What’s next for St. James? A new Five Year Plan! With the graduation of this year’s 8th Grade class, St. James’ first Five Year Plan will be complete. Moving forward, they’re revisiting mission goals, trying to decide how to grow: should St. James serve more students? Or provide more opportunities to the ones they already have? Perhaps a combination…?
“We could add a literacy hub for the community or build a second school or redouble our efforts to improve test scores and school culture. There are so many possibilities..”
It’s also a world of possibilities for the graduating 8th graders. Most kids from the local neighborhood wind up at Strawberry Mansion High School — and many won’t graduate. Graduates of St. James the Less, however, routinely choose from a dozen excellent area high schools, including La Salle High School & Germantown Friends.
As an extra boost, the school’s Graduate Support Program will continue to assist their graduates financially, academically, emotionally, and spiritually for as long as the student needs:
“We strongly believe that there must be follow through, so that our kids can have the help they need to succeed.”
It’s a core belief that keeps David working with his Allegheny West neighbors to open doors once locked, and providing opportunity to children that might not otherwise have had a chance.
PS: FREE DOWNLOADABLE NEIGHBORHOOD MAP (compliments of St. James School)