Long journey home

Students gather for an openning assembly at the new gymnasium at Northwood Academy Chartes School, where grades kindergarden to eight grade will be united in one building for the first time in six years, Tuesday, February 5, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

Northwood Academy Charter School opened in 2005, but a space crunch sent some students and staff looking for temporary digs.

The adults and kids sure were resourceful.

In the beginning, they were at a vacant former synagogue. Northwood also rented space at Feltonville Intermediate School. And the school signed a five-year lease with St. Joachim, a Catholic school in Frankford that closed in 2003, for its fifth- through eighth-graders.

When it was time for gym class, the kids and their teachers trekked to Simpson Playground.

All the while, school administrators were planning for the day when the entire Northwood Academy Charter School community would be under one roof.

That day came last week. CEO Amy Hollister woke up on the morning of Feb. 5 with one concern.

“I hope we’re all going to fit,” she said.

Hollister gave her answer — “a resounding yes” — soon after the 70-plus staff members and 788 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade walked into the school located at 4621 Castor Ave., in the former Northwood Nursing Home.

Hollister and Pam Friedman, director of student services, were all smiles at the front entrance, giving hugs and high-fives to the young people reporting to school that morning.

Groundbreaking for a big addition at the school began in August 2011, and the construction took place on a vacant field. Besides the gym, the school now has a new cafeteria and a primary education wing for kindergarten through third-grade students.

The building now consists of 68,000 square feet, and there was plenty of Bulldog Pride on display.

“It’s been a long road home,” Hollister said. “It’s been a long time to get this far. We are finally home together.”

The celebration took place in the spacious gym, which was decorated with balloons and ribbons. The Bulldog mascot and aides to state Rep. John Taylor and City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez attended.

Students Steven Jefferson, Summer Panei and Erica Panei joined in the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“2013, are you here?” Friedman asked of the class of eighth-graders, who cheered loudly.

Hollister, who said it was an emotional day for her, asked the students to turn to the student next to them and say something nice.

The CEO recognized everyone who was on board from day one.

“To all my 2005 pioneers, can we all raise our hands?” she asked.

Northwood’s PSSA scores have risen every year since 2005, and it ranks in the top 5 percent of highest-performing public elementary schools in Philadelphia.

There are more than 500 children on a waiting list to get into the school.

Northwood administrators give much of the credit to educational mentor/consultant Rochelle “Shelly” Agris, the former longtime principal at John Hancock Elementary School in Morrell Park.

In 2006, the percentages of Northwood students proficient in math and reading were 33.3 percent and 35.9 percent, respectively. Today, those numbers are 81.4 percent and 73.8 percent.

Faculty members thanked Agris in a video, as Frank Sinatra’s My Way played. Northwood named its new educational space the “Rochelle Agris Primary Wing.”

Patricia Mychack, the primary school principal, described Agris as solid as every brick and steel beam in the new building. She called her the “forewoman of our instructional foundation.”

A video also chronicled the journey to the addition, showing pictures as the construction progressed.

The students clapped along to a recording of Home, sung by last year’s American Idol winner, Phillip Phillips.

“Welcome home, Bulldogs,” Mychack said. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com