By Scott Campbell; Photograph by Jadrian Klinger
The Premier Arts and Science Charter School of Harrisburg opened for business last August. Like the school, most of the teachers are in their initial year as full-time educators. “It was a little difficult the first couple of weeks,” says Jim Fickes, health and physical education instructor. “Some texts and other equipment had not yet arrived, and the teachers had to improvise.”
Improvisation is something with which the 25-year-old Camp Hill man is familiar. His background as a substitute and part-timer at various schools was good preparation.
Fickes graduated from Lock Haven University in 2011 but found the job market less than accommodating. Interviews in districts as far away as South Carolina were unfruitful, and he had to accept part-time employment. Premier changed that in 2013.
“I was, more or less, the regular substitute at Camp Hill Middle School and High School when I was contacted by Premier last May and offered my position,” he says. “Being full-time is such a different experience from what I did before. I have my own office, schedule, responsibilities and curriculum.”
And what does a health and physical education curriculum look like at a charter school for children from kindergarten through grade three? “Right now, it’s pretty basic,” says Fickes. He employs what is called a “big book” for the kindergarten children. “It contains a lot of pictures, and I engage them in discussions about what they see. The older children use textbooks. I have introduced them to subjects like the skeletal and muscular systems of the body. Most are very interested, and I will occasionally deviate from the text when answering some of their questions.”
Premier operates on a six-day schedule that can be confusing to parents and students. Accordingly, Fickes produces a monthly schedule of his classes that is sent home with the students. There is no secure playground, and taking young children outside at the school’s 17th and State Streets location is problematic. A large, multipurpose room in the building’s basement level, adjacent to Fickes’ office, provides space for physical activities. Glancing around the room, he says, “This is adequate for exercise stations, kickball and wiffle-ball games, but there are some hard surfaces of which the students need to be mindful.”
As a charter school, Premier requires its students to wear uniforms. Boys wear blue pants and white shirts; girls wear blue skirts and white blouses. “The exception to that is on gym days. Gym attire includes a yellow or blue T-shirt and/or blue sweatshirt, shorts or sweatpants,” says Fickes.
“Premier is a local enterprise,” says Fickes, “but the tuition and transportation for each student is paid for by the Harrisburg School District.” Enrollment hovers around 140. The ultimate goal is to house K-5, which is to be realized when the current crop of third graders reaches fifth grade in two years. In each classroom, there are two adults (teacher and assistant) for 20 students, which fosters better student-teacher interaction. A daycare facility across 17th Street from the school is also managed by Premier and has been met with enthusiastic approval by parents.
Fickes joins the principal and a teaching assistant as the only male teachers in the school. “I guess to some of the kids, I’m a father figure,” he says. “They often greet me in the halls. I like the relationships that I have with them.”