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To get more and better programming, principals are instrumental

Through grants, partnerships, and lots of coordination, some schools offer students a more complete package.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

At South Philadelphia High School, under principal Otis Hackney’s leadership, students don’t all bolt for home the minute the bell rings.

That’s because partnerships between the school and the community are providing them with a wealth of opportunities, from new sports like boys’ and girls’ lacrosse to programs like video production that engage their minds in different and exciting ways.

At Henry C. Lea School in West Philadelphia, principal Lisa Bell-Chiles works with a unique school-community-university partnership that features homework help, academic enrichment, arts, music and recreation programs for about 100 children.

Not far from Lea, at the Mastery Charter Schools Shoemaker Campus, principal Sharif El-Mekki and assistant principal Daniel Bell helped craft a federally funded after-hours program that combines individualized and small-group academic help with opportunities to participate in unusual recreational activities like rowing, cycling, fencing, and chess. Mastery staff closely monitors student progress.

Sometimes, afterschool activities are the secret to keeping students engaged. So at Southern, as his school is known, Hackney works hard to find programs that are more than just homework clubs or pure recreation.

A good program helps students “explore different areas – things they are passionate about,” he said, “their strongest interest, or things that are new to them.”

For some, he added, “it may be their priority, their primary reason for coming to school every day. … It’s key that we provide these activities for them.”

It is no accident that Southern, Lea, and Shoemaker have strong afterschool offerings. Their school leadership seeks out, nurtures, and nudges those programs to make them better serve student needs.

With the Philadelphia School District drowning in red ink and struggling to provide the basics of an education during the school day, principals in many schools have to pursue city, federal, and private grants if they want to offer rich and rewarding experiences for students after school.

Many school leaders, however, lack the interest, the initiative, the contacts with the nonprofit community, or the good luck to land the kind of assistance that Southern, Lea, and Mastery-Shoemaker enjoy.

Martin Friedman, the executive director of EducationWorks, a nonprofit with afterschool programs in about 30 Philadelphia schools that serve between 1,800 and 2,000 students, said that a principal’s track record and ability to work well with nonprofit programs are “critical.”

EducationWorks will not apply for a grant to set up a program in a new school, Friedman said, “without having a good conversation and a good relationship” with the principal.

And the best principals improve the programs in their schools, he said.

“When principals work closely with us and include us in school leadership, they can push our programs to a new level,” he said. “The kind of engagement … that helps us identify the needs of students and coordinate what we do with teachers and other staff can make our program much richer.”

Hackney was a principal in Montgomery County when hired at Southern to straighten out a school that had been traumatized after attacks by mostly African American students on their Asian schoolmates.

He has worked hard to foster better relationships with the community surrounding the school, while welcoming participation by groups and individuals who were sharply critical of how the school and administration handled the situation.

“I’m big with reaching out to [community] organizations – we service the same students,” Hackney said. “I try to offer space and opportunity for them because if you find the right organization and they do something really well, it will help support our students, so I’m going to do what I can to bring them on board.”

Beyond that, Hackney works with them to determine their specialties, their target demographic, and their desired impacts, and to “look at redundancies and overlaps and make sure they are taking and tracking student data.”

“It’s important that when you look at your school’s goals, the provider organizations tie themselves to those goals and do a really good job with those students they work with. … We all like anecdotal stories, but in the end we need to look at the data; that requires a lot of effective communication,” he said.

At Lea, said Bell-Chiles, “we have meetings monthly [with outside service providers] to talk about their concerns and ours – about how our students are progressing and anything we need to add or change to meet the needs of the program.”

The school, she said, benefits from a robust partnership with the University of Pennsylvania that provides funding and staffing not available to most schools. And community groups add key input that makes the programs thrive.

Lea also benefits from a program called Whiz Kids, which was tailored with school input to meet the math needs of 3rd and 4th graders, Bell-Chiles said. Classroom teachers consult with afterschool tutors to single out areas that need attention.

Lea 7th grader Binta Thiam (left) and afterschool instructor Taharra McQueen go over some reading in the library. (Photo: Harvey Finkle) At the heart of the Penn-community-school partnership are afterschool activities that include arts instruction, computer animation, dance, a string instrumental program, robotics, video production, cooking, sports, and swimming, plus a variety of short-term projects. The program is run by a combination of paid staff, many associated with Penn, and volunteers from the university and community.

Sterling Baltimore, the Lea Community School director, said that the program plays a vital role. “We connect careers with things students are learning during the school day,” he said. And by drawing children into dance, or robotics, or computer animation, he added, “we are tapping into a talent that the school has not reached.”

Also, Baltimore said, “there is a lot of mentoring and intergenerational interaction taking place between the adults and the students.”

Students agree that beyond taking part in horizon-stretching enrichment activities, the Community School is a place where deep connections to staff and fellow students are forged.

“They make me feel wanted,” said Diouma Traore, an 8th grader. “I feel safe. … I can talk to them about anything; they’re like my family.”

Maurice Jones, a Lea parent and the head of its Home, School and Community Association, said that the Community School is “a true partnership.” Parents and community groups play a large role in determining the scope and content of the programs, he said, telling potential partners that “this is what we are doing to help the students get what they need and deserve, so it’s in your interest to help us get it accomplished. This is our community, and this is what is important to us, so we need to make sure things that benefit the students get done.”

In the fall, Lea will be receiving hundreds of students from the Alexander Wilson School, which is being closed. Bell-Chiles will no longer be principal. But Baltimore and Jones said that they have been preparing for the student influx since the announcement and expect the Community School program to emerge unscathed.

How vital are afterschool programs to a good education? They “couldn’t be more important,” said Shoemaker’s Bell.

“Our kids learn a tremendous amount through these experiential opportunities and through the relationship with adults that are part of the process. We want to raise the whole child; we want AAA students – strong in academics, arts, and athletics.”

At Southern, groups like Boat People SOS, a primarily Vietnamese organization, “really concentrate on developing leadership, and some students have come really far with them,” Hackney said. “The leadership ability students attain in that kind of program can last a lifetime.”

The EducationWorks program there introduces students to a range of activities that include video production, digital photography, music production, mixed martial arts, creative writing, and youth service projects.

But Latoria “Torie” Anderson, one of the program’s staffers, said its importance is not limited to the practical skills it teaches. It is part of the school’s student support network, she said, keeping participants engaged and helping them overcome obstacles to learning.

“When kids come to school late or get into trouble, they are often referred to EducationWorks,” she said. “We are at the heart of the building. A lot of what we do is relationship-building. … We have to be ingrained in the school community in order to make a difference in students’ lives, and I think we are.”

Senior Shante Outlaw, a regular EducationWorks participant, agreed.

“I look forward to coming to school just to be part of the program,” she said, as other students worked all around her on a variety of projects in EducationWorks second-floor room. “I feel like I have a home here – a second family – people I can talk to and interact with and be myself around.”

What keeps her coming back, even more than the programs themselves, is the feeling of acceptance: “knowing that people care about me and want me to be around. … I have a close bond to Miss Torie – along with working on projects here, I can talk to her about personal problems. It helps me feel good about myself.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the program Whiz Kids was run by After School Activities Partnerships.

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