Principal Sarah Touma to kick off first year at elementary school with library renovation project
By Melissa Komar
The first official day for Philadelphia school staff is not until the end of August, but Sarah Touma was bright-eyed and busy in the library at John Moffet School on the last Tuesday in July.
Touma will begin her first year as principal at the South Kensington elementary school in September, and transforming the library is the first item on her agenda to make Moffet “the school where people want to send their kids.”
“I see the library transformation as a catalyst for learning and change,” she said.
Touma envisions reading areas with furniture and rugs on which students can relax with a good book, an updated array of books from which to choose, furnishings to expose students to the outside world, including maps to reinforce the concept of belonging to a larger community outside of the school.
In the future, Touma hopes to partner with the community to have a check-in and check-out system, so students can check out library books, and doing reading challenges to “create a huge literacy environment.”
There will also be noticeable cosmetic changes, including a mural.
Friends of Moffet is working with the school and the surrounding community to host clean-up and paint days.
“It’s really been a community project,” Touma said. “It’s really turned into a full stakeholders’ investment.”
Originally from New York, Touma is no stranger to the community.
The new principal received a bachelor’s degree in human services from Villanova University and a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania.
During her second year at Penn, Touma interned for Lutheran Settlement House in Fishtown. At the time, the nonprofit organization had an outreach program at Penn Treaty School.
Touma worked with students during her internship and fell in love with the school.
“I approached the principal and said, ‘I really need to be in this school. I feel like I belong here,’ and the principal said there weren’t any social workers, but there was a opening for a bilingual teacher,” she said.
Touma received her emergency teacher certification for the position and spent the next 17 years at Penn Treaty, the first two as a bilingual teacher and the remaining 15 as a school counselor.
As her role expanded, Touma entered the Plus Program, a two-year fellowship that requires the staff member to leave his or her school and become a principal fellow at another Philadelphia school.
Last year, Touma spent the year at Anne Frank Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia.
“My experience at Anne Frank was tremendous, but I always knew I wanted to come back here into the community,” she said. “When I heard Mrs. Navarro, the principal at Moffet, was retiring, I knew this was the school for me even before I applied. I knew this was where I belonged because for the 17 years I was at Penn Treaty, the students left Moffet and went to Penn Treaty.”
Moffet is the feeder school for Penn Treaty, which serves grades six through 12.
“I knew the family and the kids,” Touma said. “A lot of times, I would walk from Penn Treaty to Moffet to make sure the kids were safe because they would come to pick up their younger siblings.”
Leaving those kids at Penn Treaty has been the toughest part of the transition.
“I told them I was going back to school to learn how to help younger kids including your younger siblings to learn how to read and do math,” Touma said. “So, maybe one day, when I finish school, I’ll be able to come back and help your younger siblings.”
In becoming the principal at Moffet, Touma is able to keep that promise, and serve the families she knows so well.
“Moffet has a strong family feel. The community is very tight,” she said. “I plan to build on that.
Two main beliefs driving Touma to make Moffet a strong community school are “the power of exposure and celebrating the diversity that exists within the school and exposing the kids to the outside world” and “creating a culture of learning.”
Hence, the inspiration behind the library.
“It’s about the kids coming back to something so drastically different that is going to get them excited about being in a space that’s conducive to reading,” Touma said. “Taking this dull, focal point in the building and making it something amazing for them.”
Forming new committees within the school including leadership, student-support and stakeholder teams to address specific issues and questions is another goal.
Additionally,Touma has talked to staff about transforming the garden space, collaborating with the Penn Treaty School horticultural program, sprucing up the auditorium and collaborating with Penn Treaty School students to work with kindergarten and first-grade students on literacy.
“Targeting early literacy is a big goal, and we’re going to have a big push on math this year,” Touma said. “Our scores in math are not where we’d like them to be.”
Moffet teachers attended a one-week institute at the end of the school year and, along with Touma, developed measurable goals that will be implemented in the classroom this year as part of that push.
Guiding Touma on her quest to transform Moffet is her educational motto: “Doing anything that is going to ignite passion and learning.”
“Everything is centered around student achievement, so anything that is going to make my kids grow and learn and be productive citizens is at the forefront of every decision we make,” Touma said. “I want this to be a real community school. Stay tuned because we are going to do amazing things here.”
Details for clean-up and paint days for the library at Moffet TBA. For updates about the events, follow John_Moffet_K_5 on Twitter or Friends of Moffet on Facebook.