Philly schools give Joyce Abbott, of ‘Abbott Elementary’ fame, her own street in a surprise celebration
Joyce Abbott "showed up, she demanded excellence, she didn’t let you down. She was there for you, because she understood that in some cases, for some children, she was all they had," an official said.
Happy Joyce Abbott Day to those who celebrate.
The longtime Philadelphia School District teacher and namesake of the wildly popular ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary was feted in grand style Tuesday, with public officials singing her praises and a city street — the 1900 block of 59th — renamed “Joyce Abbott Way” in her honor.
Abbott, who spent 27 years as a teacher after serving as a soldier in the Persian Gulf War, retired from Philadelphia schools in 2022 as climate manager at Andrew Hamilton Elementary in West Philadelphia.
But the bulk of Abbott’s career was in a sixth-grade classroom at Hamilton, where she taught a little girl named Quinta Brunson — a shy, hardworking student, a perfectionist who carried the lessons imparted by her favorite teacher and honored Abbott as namesake when she created Abbott Elementary, the show that centers on a fictional Philadelphia public school.
The splashy Tuesday celebration, held at Abbott’s alma mater, Overbrook High, was engineered by the school district, and featured cheerleaders, a band, myriad public officials who all wanted a selfie with Abbott, and a gym full of supporters shouting their love and praise for her.
Councilmember Curtis Jones noted that in an under-resourced district such as Philadelphia’s, “our children carry two bookbags — one with the lessons of the day, and the other from the troubles from home.”
Abbott Elementary has been hailed by critics as hilarious, but the realities the show illustrates aren’t always funny, Jones said. But the episodes make people think, and “they inspire us to do more, because of you.”
Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the union that represents principals and climate managers, noted that Philadelphia’s educators do much more than instruct their students in academic subjects. They often feed children, provide them with haircuts and clean clothes and love.
“Joyce Abbott was that teacher,” Cooper said. “She showed up, she demanded excellence, she didn’t let you down. She was there for you because she understood that in some cases, for some children, she was all they had.”
Abbott was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, from the street-naming to the special chair set aside for her, draped in Overbrook orange, and the gym speakers pumping out Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” her favorite song.
When it was Abbott’s turn with the microphone, she wiped away her tears and stood soldier straight.
“I had 36 students in my first year, very limited textbooks, several behavior problems in addition to several students who were academically challenged,” Abbott said. “I was aware and I understood the many challenges and obstacles within the community. So it was not only in my blood, but I had a true passion.”
Abbott said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, and she gave a shout-out to “all the educators still in the trenches, making miracles every day.”
Briyana Freeman hadn’t seen her sixth-grade teacher since 2008, but she came to the Overbrook gym Tuesday to honor her. And when Abbott caught sight of her former student in the crowd, she threw her arms around her.
That’s classic Ms. Abbott, said Freeman, who ate lunch in Abbott’s room every day because she wanted to spend every moment possible with her teacher, who felt like a family member.
“She was militant, but you knew that she loved you,” said Freeman. “She expected a lot of us. She made us leaders.”
Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr., who said he doesn’t miss an episode of Abbott Elementary, thanked Abbott for giving millions of people a view into the joys and the struggles of Philadelphia schools.
“I absolutely revere Mrs. Abbott,” Watlington said.
Sheila Hess, the city representative, said she brought Mayor Jim Kenney’s best wishes, and her own abiding admiration for the life’s work of Abbott and so many teachers like her, “the people that show up for our children with that grit and our own Philly determination, in only the way that we can.”
Because of Abbott, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said, Philadelphia and its students have a true narrative to counter the negative stereotypes that some people conjure when they think of public education, urban schools, what city children can accomplish.
Jordan looked at Abbott, smiling in the Overbrook gym.
“You’re changing the conversation,” he told her.