Community members gathered in a house on West Mt. Airy Avenue on Thursday night to meet the new principal of Houston H. Elementary School. Reginald Johnson took the helm of the school this fall following former principal Kimberly Newman's departure in the spring. 

"I am the principal of Houston, the proud principal of Houston," said Johnson, to introduce himself. 

Approximately 25 neighbors came together at the Mt. Airy-Nippon-Bryan-Cresheim Town Watch meeting to discuss what Johnson has in store for the 379-student K-8 school and to talk about how neighbors can pitch in. 

"It's clear to all of us that more outreach needs to be done, especially in these hard times," said town-watch leader Steven Stroiman, referring to the School District of Philadelphia's budget crisis. "We are looking to do whatever we can."

Changes at Houston

Johnson listed a set of grants and partnerships guaranteed to the school, like one from the Children's Literacy Initiative that will benefit K-3 classrooms. Also included was a half-million dollar grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focusing on a "teacher effectiveness" initative with teachers from Mastery Charter Schools. 

The school has secured partnerships with Chestnut Hill College, Abington Friends School and Springside Chestnut Hill Academy to help fill the school's library with new and gently-used books. The library will be staffed for two half-days each week by nine community volunteers so that classes and students can use the facility. 

Other partnerships include a writing program with members of the recently-formed Mutual Mt. Airy and an anti-bullying program with the Roxborough YMCA. 

Johnson emphasized the need for community participation in three main areas: Gaining technology resources, beautifying the property and marketing the school.

"I've never seen a school that should be thriving with technology and just has none," he said. "We need to provide the tools that they so desperately need."

Feedback, concerns

Many present expressed a concern that families may hesitate to send their kids to Houston — opting instead to send them to a private school or to leave the city — if resource and behavioral issues there are not addressed.

"It comes down to whether or not the child feels comfortable and safe, and feels like they get enough attention in the classroom," said Anne Sydor, a mother of three children, all of whom have passed through Houston at some point during the past 12 years.  

Sydor expressed frustration at the lack of resources available to students after recent budget cuts. Houston's counselor splits time between seven other schools throughout the district, spending five hours a week at each school. 

"Do you get the behavioral support? Do you get the learning support?" she asked.

"The more that Houston can be a viable option, the more people will stay here and move here," said Stroiman. "We are emotionally invested, but you need more than that."

'The community is theirs'

Johnson told attendees that he has seen students' behavior both outside and inside the school improve in the school year's first month. He attributed this to altering the school's layout and schedule so that classrooms and lunch periods are grouped together by grade. He also has students line up in the morning outside and then enter the school quietly.

"This trains them to think of school as a place of learning," said Johnson, who tells students to have a "peaceful, safe and quiet journey home" as a reminder to respect the school's neighbors when they're leaving campus. 

That sentiment is a two-way street, according to Sydor.

"Teach kids that the community is theirs, as the school is," Sydor said, "and the community that the school is theirs, as are the kids in it."