Henry School teacher honored as one of the city's best

by Len Lear
Posted 6/27/24

The Lindback Foundation issued their selections for the best teachers of 2024, which included 60 teachers, several from the Northwest.

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Henry School teacher honored as one of the city's best


According to the Philadelphia School District website, there are 217 district public schools — elementary, middle and high schools — in the city, as well as 82 charter schools and 31 alternative schools. In those schools there are currently 8,143 teachers. Every year, the Christian and Mary Lindback Foundation awards the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching to the best teachers in the city's public schools, based on recommendations from those schools and a panel of Lindback evaluators. Each winner receives a $3,500 prize. The awards were given out on May 21 at the Philadelphia Film Center.

Last month, the Lindback Foundation issued their selections for the best teachers of 2024, which included 60 teachers, several from the Northwest, which amounts to one out of every 136 public school teachers in the city. One of these 60 is Francesca Cantarini, a social studies teacher for the sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes at the Charles W. Henry School in West Mt. Airy.

Henry principal Kristy Len told us, “I'm most impressed about Francesca's commitment to social justice and making sure our students can form opinions about what's happening in the world. She is conscientious about presenting all sides of an issue. What's important is how the students go out into the community and advocate for what's important. That's hard to do, but she does it.”

Typical of those teachers who give abundantly of themselves to make this a better world, but are usually underpaid and underappreciated, Cantarini modestly deflected praise to others when asked about the award. “As far as I am concerned,” she said, “this award is for the entire Henry School family. The surrounding community and my colleagues are great. You cannot teach solo. We have an incredible team here.”

She lauded the environment at Henry, her fellow teachers, staff, students and parents. 

“When I got here, I was told there really was a Henry School family, and I found out it is true,” she said. “Henry has won five or six Lindback Awards in the past 10 years, and many more teachers here deserve it. For example, middle schools need social workers and don't have them, so we have become the first line of defense for trauma.”

A native of Bedford, PA, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, Cantarini graduated from Seton Hill College in suburban Pittsburgh and then earned a master's degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh. She worked for nonprofit organizations such as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) in Washington D.C. (now known as Reproductive Freedom for All), yet reported “I always wanted to be a teacher,” which was the impetus behind her move to Philadelphia, where she got involved with an organization called the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows Program then taught at the E. Washington Rhodes School in North Philadelphia for two years. After that, in 2008, she joined the Charles W. Henry School, which has been at 601 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy for 116 years. 

Cantarini, a Germantown resident for the past 17 years, told us, “A friend, Peggy Bradley, said to me, 'You must apply to the Henry School.' That was 16 years ago. The truth is that I would not still be in teaching if I had been in any other school. I will be here for the duration, 12 more years. I am still having fun and love teaching now more than ever.”

Caterini first taught English for 10 years and has now been teaching Social Studies for eight years. 

“Teaching social studies keeps me young,” she said. “I am constantly reminded not to take myself too seriously. We have fun things with the kids. They put me in the dunk tank recently, for example. We take the kids to Washington, D.C., New York and Baltimore, and… the Irish Center. You can't teach kids if you don't have fun. We talk about the news also. I want them to be active citizens, to know they have a voice.” 

Cantarini was also a softball coach for two years at Rhodes and 13 years at Henry, as well as a volleyball coach for six years (she retired last year from coaching sports) and remains a debate club coach and “ethics bowl” coach. (Henry's middle school is the only one in the city with an “ethics bowl.”) But she admits that not everything about her career is idyllic.

“There is just one counselor for 450 students,” she said, “and dealing with social and emotional learning is so important. We have kids from all over the city, and some are dealing with trauma and are mental health-challenged. We try to listen and find solutions, although no one has all the right answers. In Springfield High school they have all kinds of new stuff we do not have. We had to practice on macadam for softball, for example, instead of a dirt field. We have to deal with mold, no air conditioner and environmental racism perpetuated by the funding system. We try to take the kids to museums and do the things private schools do, but it is very hard … Every kid needs at least one adult in their corner. That's why we (teachers) all eat together at lunch. Someone will say, 'Did you see so-and-so? He's upset today.' We can't do it alone.”

For more information, visit henry.philasd.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.