ON SEPT. 9, the first day of class at Martin Luther King High, with cameras and reporters all around and the school under a microscope the size of the William Penn statue atop City Hall, principal William Wade's biggest nightmare was realized: A fight broke out.
The two brawling students had to be separated while others looked on. It seemed like the fulfillment of predictions from some community leaders that chaos would fill the halls - the result of consolidating King and Germantown High, schools with a long history of dislike for each other. Never mind that the students were both from King.
"These two wonderful children tussled in the hallway," recalled Wade, a third-year principal and Chicago native who was drawn to the district by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's turnaround model. "I had to say to everybody, 'Hey, these two guys were with me last year. They're two King students.' "
Since that low point, the Northwest Philadelphia school has drawn inspiration from an unlikely source: its football team. A year ago, the team went 1-10, the lone win coming by forfeit. This year, they welcomed players from rival Germantown - which many observers thought would create a volatile situation, given the schools' well-documented head-to-head battles.
The Cougars lost their first two games, but then reeled off 10 straight wins and went on to capture their first Public League championship by beating Mastery North - to whom they had lost earlier in the season. Their first-year head coach, Ed Dunn, 27, was barely 10 years older than half his players.
King lost to Archbishop Wood in the city championship, but closed out the season with a thrilling, last-second 32-30 victory against Imhotep Charter on Thanksgiving Day.
The team's success has given the beleaguered school and its community something to celebrate. The story will be entered into next year's Tribeca Film Festival by a documentary crew that has been filming at the school since August.
"At the end of the day, our love for the game and wanting to get that championship meant more than our hate toward each other," said junior wide receiver Emmanuel Clark, who transferred from Imhotep.
If "hate" seems a strong word, consider that two years ago, players from the two teams came to blows during the annual Thanksgiving Day contest and that the bad blood stretched back decades.
"Growing up, Germantown was always our enemy," said senior guard Frank Darden, who made the 2013 All-Public Team. "We hated Germantown, everything about Germantown. They beat me in my 10th-grade and 11th-grade year, and in my 12th-grade year they helped me win a championship."
Building team chemistry was no easy feat. Knowing that they had their work cut out for them, Dunn and his largely volunteer staff halted their weight-training program at Germantown last spring and moved it to King to get the players together. Some Germantown players opted for other schools, but many decided to stick with Dunn.
Incorporating the two teams required major adjustments from the players and from the adults, many of whom had ties to Germantown. Kelly Cottle, an assistant coach who graduated from Germantown in 1983 and a self-described "rah-rah" alum, said he even heard questions from fellow alumni about his making the switch to purple and gold.
"We didn't feed into any of that. We didn't allow any type of division," Cottle said. "This school and this community has to work. The kids in this community have to be able to come to school and have a good learning environment."
More than the score
Some insist that the final scores at football games aren't the only things gradually changing at King, which has an enrollment of about 1,200 at Stenton Avenue and Haines Street in East Germantown. Wade said the number of serious incidents is down, while academic indicators are pointing up. He also said students are displaying more pride in the school - which had a reputation for being troubled - perhaps a result of the football team's turnaround.
"The first year we had a pep rally, we couldn't get anybody in the gym," said Wade, 44. "Frank [Darden] will tell you, we couldn't have an exciting [rally]. Kids wouldn't paint their face. They wouldn't participate in spirit week when I first took over."
But at a rally three weeks ago, he said, "Kids were buzzing at 7:30 and I had to threaten every period, 'We will not have a pep rally if you don't go to class. We will not have a pep rally if you don't stop painting your face.' We had over 700 kids in there for the pep rally."
Getting kids riled up about sports might seem trivial, but Wade disagrees.
"It was pride. I hadn't seen that," he said. "It brought a tear to my eye. So now we can take that pride, we can harness that pride and let that spill over into the classrooms where we can make sure that if we continue to educate them on the importance of academic excellence, we can have success across the board.
"I don't think there's anybody in the building that can tell you they don't see that happening."
Some say Wade's leadership and balanced approach have started to turn the tide.
"The principal, he's real cool, but he ain't so cool you get by," senior Jose Troche said outside the school, where Langston Hughes' poem "Dream" covers one wall. "If anything, he's more so like somebody on your back, instead of a principal."
When Germantown was closed, Troche said, he thought officials were trying to sabotage King so that they could add it to the list of shuttered schools. Now, he says, "Everything worked out way different than people thought it would."
He conceded, "It might work out."
Jackie Beville, 67, a retired businessman, volunteers with the Germantown Clergy Initiative, which for five years was at Germantown High making sure students were safe going in and out of the building. He and about a dozen others have continued the daily routine at King.
"If we have a hero [who] is a leader of that school, it is my brother, Principal Wade. He is no joke," Beville said. "He cares for the kids, he is a disciplinarian, he runs a tight ship.
"I don't work for him. I'm a volunteer on the outside working," he added.
Beville said he has seen no signs of neighborhood tension at the school. The biggest issues have been a few students trying to sneak in side doors early in the year, he said, but school police have "nipped it in the bud."
Wade credited the community with helping the school survive under the strain of budget cuts - from the clergy who welcome students in the morning to the parent volunteers who answer phones in the office.
"When children know that you care and they know that we have high expectations, we get great results from them," he said.
"Knock on wood, the school year's not over; we still have the springtime to get through, but the merger has been successful to this point," he added. "We're educating young people in the Northwest region and creating partnerships every day to help do that at a better rate and a better pace."
A ways to go
Despite the optimism under Wade, the school still has a long way to go. Its 2011-12 PSSA test scores were well below the district average. The school no longer has an extended school day, which was supposed to be a hallmark of Ackerman's so-called Promise Academies, the underperforming schools taken over by district staff. Add to that no money for field trips or weekly professional development due to budget cuts.
And, as in schools across the district, funding shortfalls have led to further layoffs of teachers, administrators and counselors.
Wade made no bones about the difficulties.
"It's always a challenge when you have behavior issues, academic issues, attendance issues and low parental involvement," he said. "And those are some of the main descriptors in all of our neighborhood high schools across this country, not just King."
The principal said he remains confident that he and his team of educators are right for the job, even though they face long odds - much like their football team.
"It's my job to keep them all encouraged and supported while they do this very difficult work," he said. "I don't get discouraged. I don't quit easy."