MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
Stephen Decatur School isn’t the oldest building in Parkwood, but it may be one of the oldest that’s still standing.
Sweeping residential development in the neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s took down many, if not most of the historical structures that once dotted the area’s vast woods and farmlands. But thanks to the students at Decatur, the community now has a place where it can see what used to be there.
The unveiling of a Parkwood history mural was one of several key attractions during Decatur’s 50th anniversary open house on May 26. A second new, permanent mural features a legacy tree. Meanwhile, the folks at Decatur decorated the school’s hallways and classrooms with an assortment of nostalgic memorabilia evoking memories of the last five decades. Hundreds of students, staff, alumni, families and community members joined in the evening celebration leading up to the school’s Spring Concert.
Although still considered an “elementary school” by name, the building at 3500 Academy Road now serves more than 1,000 pupils from kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We wanted to bring back all the alumni and community people and show them what Decatur is like, the great things that are happening at school,” Principal Genevieve Endy-O’Kane said. “And we wanted to reminisce.”
The history mural covers a wall in the lobby and features ceramic renderings of prominent Parkwood buildings, past and present. According to teacher Nicole Solis, who chairs the school’s Community Relations Committee, pupils spent many hours researching local history and creating the tile-sized renderings under the tutelage of art teacher Megan Giampietro.
Arranged chronologically, the sculptures include examples of older construction such as a Lenape Longhouse (representative of the pre-European settlement era), the Byberry Friends Meeting House, an old blacksmith shop along the Poquessing Creek and the Mechanicsville School (a 19th-century building that was converted into a residence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places). Some newer buildings are also included, such as Philadelphia Mills mall and the Wawa at Academy and Byberry roads.
On a facing wall, Giampietro directed the creation of the legacy tree, with paint for the trunk and branches along with ceramic apples and leaves, each featuring the name of a donor. There are hundreds of names. Proceeds from the tree supported the project and anniversary festivities. Any surplus will be used for school supplies and programs.
“(For donors) it’s like leaving a legacy here, something to remember,” Endy-O’Kane said. “Everyone feels like they’re leaving a part of themselves at Decatur.”
Debbie Konsler was one of the alumni seeking to rekindle her fond memories that evening. Konsler grew up in Parkwood and began grade school at A.L. FitzPatrick Elementary, Knights Road and Chalfont Drive. She transferred to Decatur for its 1965 opening.
“I remember Mister Burkheimer. He was my teacher in fifth grade,” Konsler said. “He was a great teacher. He was very young, personable and enthusiastic. He was a historian and engaged really well with kids.”
As for the Decatur building: “It looks different because it’s been so long,” Konsler said. “Except for the auditorium. It looks the same.”
Dion Betts, an assistant superintendent with the School District of Philadelphia, said that Decatur has become a model for the city’s public schools.
“This is a premiere school for our region and city,” Betts said. “It’s staffed with a high-performing principal and teachers. I’m proud of what they’re doing here like including special education students in general studies classes. Kids learn from each other when they (see each other) in the neighborhood. They play together. Why should that be any different in schools?”
Betts explained that Decatur has instituted a model that values personalized learning with timely student evaluations and faculty responses. The school embraces those with special needs, while pushing gifted children to achieve their potential.
“This is a wonderful neighborhood school, especially because (Endy-O’Kane) engages the community like she’s doing tonight,” Betts said. ••
MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
Decatur celebrates 50th: Stephen Decatur Elementary School Principal Genevieve Endy-O’Kane (above) welcomes guests to the school’s 50th anniversary celebration at the school. The celebration included touting the school’s new mural and photos of the school’s history. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO