Wish Upon a Star

By Megan Drennan — June 21, 1995 8 min read

West Chester, Pa.

Chester County, Pa., is hunt country. Twice a week, riders mount their thoroughbred horses and go in search of foxes among the soft green hills and stone barns made famous in countless landscapes by painter Andrew Wyeth.

But in recent years, shades more reminiscent of neighboring Philadelphia’s inner city have colored this idyllic picture.

Between 1985 and 1992, infant mortality rates soared, drug-abuse violations increased by nearly 200 percent, and reports of child abuse grew by 25 percent annually. Alarmed by these statistics, one county resident decided to tackle the root causes of this emerging poverty by founding the North Star Educational Initiative.

Bearing the same name as Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, the year-round private school set out to offer local Head Start graduates the extra support they would need to succeed in school and in life. Three years later, North Star seems to be living up to its historic name and its charge to guide troubled souls toward a better land.

Science and Stability

Tucked in a corner of the West Chester Community Center’s ground floor, North Star is more an idea than a place at this stage of its development. Strung from a post in the center of this cavernous room, periwinkle curtains form the school’s interior walls. A pair of potted palms marks its entrance.

It’s bustling inside the “schoolhouse” this morning. First graders wiggle to the sound of Grover Washington Jr.'s saxophone while they experiment with miniature hourglasses. Kindergartners set the low-slung tables for breakfast, gently guided by Ethel Beachem, a 75-year-old teaching assistant.

At one of those tables, two boys quietly dictate stories to Kathy Meltzer, one of their three teachers, describing drawings they made of themselves earlier this morning. The students’ self-portraits offer the five-person staff a daily barometer to the children’s well-being.

“In the morning, it’s very obvious what the night was like before,” says Lorraine Andersen, the school’s director. “Emotionally, we see how the children arrive.”

After breakfast, the 32 kindergartners and 1st graders buzz into math and language-arts classes, imitating the insects they are studying this week.

In one classroom--a large green rug bordered by a portable chalkboard--a gaggle of 1st graders arranges itself in a semicircle before Mary Homza. She gives each child a handful of realistic-looking plastic bugs. Squealing as they manipulate centipedes and spiders, these North Star learners, as they proudly describe themselves, call out correct answers to her questions about sums and differences.

Learning at North Star is a hands-on, science-oriented process. Organized around modules on the atmosphere, the earth, and the body, the science-based curriculum is often presented through the arts. During the summer, students study water, using the nearby Brandywine River as an outdoor classroom. The cost of this year-round, all-day education runs about $7,800 per child. The school district, by contrast, spends about $5,900 for each elementary student.

In addition to being a fun way to engage young students, science offers a counter to the instability many of the children cope with at home. “We teach them about the stability of nature, that the seasons will change, and that the sun will come up in the morning,” Andersen explains.

The teachers also try to let the youngsters know that there are adults, like the school’s many loyal volunteers, whom they can rely on. Just before noon, two of these volunteers visit for lunch.

Dressed in full uniform, Officer Joe and Officer Bob saunter between the palms, creating a small scene as students jockey for their attention. A year ago, these two community police officers received quite different receptions. The children were wary, says Patrolman Joseph Parisano as he munches on carrot sticks, because they associated police with people who arrested their relatives.

“When we started a year ago, our whole idea was to break the barrier between kids and the police department,” Parisano recalls. “We wanted to show them that we’re real people, too.”

Despite the obvious success of their weekly visits, both men know they are helping only a tiny percentage of the county’s at-risk youngsters.

“Unfortunately,” Cpl. Robert Gallen says, “we’ve lost a few generations of kids.”

Local Philanthropy

Perpetuating that loss was unacceptable to Richard D. Sanford, the chief executive officer of Intelligent Electronics.

In 1992, the Sanford Foundation, which he and his wife established in 1989 to help underprivileged children, published At Risk in Chester County. The report’s grim findings about the county’s economic future galvanized them into concentrating their efforts locally. In particular, the potential dearth of educated and employable residents worried Sanford, who heads a $3 billion computer-distribution company based in nearby Exton, Pa.

So he and his wife decided to create a three-year school for Head Start graduates. Some 14 months later, despite academic naysayers and bureaucratic hurdles, North Star enrolled its first cohort of 18 students.

By design, the school makes use of existing community resources, such as the local library and the swimming pool at the Y.M.C.A. Not only does this resource-sharing cut costs, but it is also a way to instill lifelong habits in students and their families. The approach will make it easier for other communities to re-create the North Star experiment.

Sanford admits the school isa long-term investment. But the return, he estimates, may be one of his best, not only for the borough of West Chester but for the county and its public schoolsas well.

“We know these kids will absolutely survive and participate in the public school system,” says Sanford. “If they had entered it on their own, they never would have made it.”

This educational experiment is long overdue, says Edward Zigler, a Yale University psychology professor who helped develop Head Start. “Often people blame Head Start for the fade-out phenomenon,” he says. “I have been trying for 25 years to make people realize that you have to keep the momentum of Head Start going for several years. You must have something beyond.”

Community Involvement

Creating that “something beyond” fell to Lorraine Andersen and Kathy Meltzer, whom Sanford asked to plan the new school. At the time, Andersen was teaching preschool at Upland, a private school catering to members of the horse set. “I had often wondered what it would be like to give an education like Upland’s to children who could never have it,” she recalls.

Meltzer, a former teacher, was working at Intelligent Electronics when she heard about the project. It seemed an ideal segue back into education.

Involving parents, they agreed, was critical to a child’s success. So as one of the school’s few admissions requirements, North Star parents must commit to participating in the school.

For most parents, that entails attending monthly parent-teacher meetings, taking part in evening story hours, and helping out with homework. For others, it even means going back to complete the high school education they had abandoned years ago.

That commitment leads some parents to the nearby Adult Learning Center, which opened in January. Like North Star, the A.L.C. received its start-up funding from the Sanford Foundation and strives to help families break the welfare cycle.

The A.L.C. nurtures its 33 adult students, providing classes in G.E.D.. preparation, computer skills, budgeting, and stress management. Unlike other adult-training centers, it does not limit the amount of time students can spend taking classes.

“I’m more confident in myself,” says Luz Menendez, whose daughter Erica attends North Star. “And I can take better care of my children.”

Menendez, like many women enrolled here, learned about the center through Tina Forsythe, the family case manager at North Star. “We’re working with a child for eight hours but not forgetting their families,” she says. Empowering parents by making them aware of available services and encouraging them not to be passive, she explains, consumes most of her time.

County human-services professionals are gambling that school-based health programming can be a cost-effective and comprehensive route to reaching families in need of their services.

Jim Bruce, the director of Chester County’s Human Services, admits that he was initially skeptical about committing public resources to this private venture. His department covers the cost of Forsythe’s position at the school.

But after observing the emotional and academic gains that students and their families have made, he believes North Star could be a model for other schools in the county. “The challenge now is to develop empirical outcomes models,” Bruce says. “But it is a perennial challenge with pilot projects: What do you use to judge a program’s success?”

Quantifying the school’s progress and disseminating that evidence will be the next important phase of the initiative. At the end of three years, North Star will put together a how-to “cookbook” for other business leaders interested in setting up similar schools. The goal, Sanford says, is not to replicate North Star but to help communities meet their distinct needs.

Involving West Chester businesses, says Warren Merrick, the development director at Intelligent Electronics, is key to sustaining the effort.

Currently, 65 percent of the school’s annual $250,000 budget comes from the Sanford Foundation. Other foundations, corporations, and individuals make up the difference. West Chester’s affluent reputation, Merrick admits, makes it difficult to convince people of the need for local funding.

A Bright Future

How well the North Star learners adjust to public school will depend largely on their parents who, Forsythe says, will be largely responsible for shepherding that transition. The first cohort will be mainstreamed into the 3rd grade in the fall of 1997.

Despite these uncertainties, North Star’s future looks bright.

In the fall, the school will relocate to its permanent home, a 1750 farmhouse a few miles away. The 18-acre site is a veritable science laboratory, with seven natural terrains and a pond. There’s also a pool, which, Andersen says, will probably be transformed into an amphitheater because the students will continue to swim at the Y.M.C.A.

And, in the pasture next to the white, four-story house, two chestnut-colored horses are grazing.

“The hunt association has asked if we will keep the property open,” laughs Andersen. “We will--the kids are going to love seeing the horses.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1995 edition of Education Week as Wish Upon a Star