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South Philadelphia High drives toward becoming a community school

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

For Kamoy Gumbs, a senior at South Philadelphia High School, the school day doesn’t end after the final bell. Instead, he heads up to the third floor to do some homework in the school’s teen lounge before he trades his pencil for an apron.

“I love cooking, and one of my friends told me about it, so I came over,” said Gumbs, 17, who takes part in a culinary arts program after school provided by Sunrise of Philadelphia, a social services organization. “I started in 10th grade — it’s my third year. I go every day.”

Southern, as the school is often called, has been working with local service providers like Sunrise for three years to provide afterschool programming and social services inside its building for students, parents, and, when it can, other community members.

In addition to the culinary program, the school offers many other services, including class credit recovery, sexual health education, outpatient therapy, college preparation for children of migrant and refugee parents, and social benefit access.

In August, City Council held a hearing on the possibility of creating “community schools” in the District. Then, in late October, the District’s chief of student services, Karyn Lynch, announced tentative plans to turn Southern and Strawberry Mansion into community schools.

Although definitions vary somewhat, the idea of a community school is grounded in a notion of the neighborhood school as a vital educational and social service hub in the community. Classes are held like at any other school, but a community school threads social and academic supports into its educational model, forging partnerships with neighborhood services that cater to students and their families.

Although the District is still in a preliminary phase of planning, Lynch said each school would work alongside a community umbrella organization, contracted through the Department of Human Services, that would coordinate programming.

Southern has been in the process of building toward a community school model for years, since the arrival of principal Otis Hackney in 2009.

“When I first came to South Philadelphia High School, that was during a very tumultuous time for the school,” he said, referring to the period surrounding racially motivated attacks on Asian students. “There was an abundance of resources, but I don’t know if there was an abundance of services that were being properly implemented here.”

Hackney asked school counselor Pierre LaRocco to help change that. Working with the Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative, which organizes partnerships to help disadvantaged communities, LaRocca said they vetted about 60 organizations that were working with or at the school in some capacity.

“He asked me to figure out who they were and what they were actually doing, then bring them all together,” said LaRocco.

For Hackney, this vast effort is in service of his vision of what a school like Southern should be, particularly for a population where 97 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 26 percent are in special education, according to state records.

“This is not my phrase, but I use it all the time: high expectations with high support,” said Hackney. “When I look at my students and I think about what I want them to be and what I want them to become, I take into consideration all the obstacles and all the challenges that many of my students have.”

“I don’t expect anything less from [my students] than I would from a kid from a suburban school or a magnet school,” said Hackney. “But if I want a student to achieve that level or reach even higher than they imagine they could, we need to provide them with that level of support.”

LaRocco described the utility of the community school model this way: “We can’t teach a student chemistry or physics if they’re worrying about what they’re going to eat that night. So we try to make sure that we bridge that gap first, because then we can get into higher-level thinking and learning.”

The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools has championed the approach as a cost-effective alternative to the current model driven by accountability and high-stakes testing. The group has pointed to the city of Cincinnati as an example of effective use of the model. Graduation rates there have increased since 2000 from 51 to 82 percent, according to the Cincinnati school district. Some analyses, though, have found the gains to be more modest than the plaudits suggest.

In New York City, where the model was recently adopted for turning around underperforming schools, the Children’s Aid Society, an umbrella organization for 16 community schools, calculated in a 2013 study of two of its schools that every dollar invested yields social value of $10 in one case and $15 in the other. Both PCAPS and Hackney have visited the organization’s schools to see how they could implement similar programming in Philadelphia.

“We’re talking about using this [community school] model in our low-achieving, poorest schools, where children come to school with many issues that have to be dealt with before you can even begin to try and educate them,” said PCAPS member Evette Jones of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “Once you put all those pieces together, the only outcome is that the child is going to do better.”

Other services now hosted at Southern include the Teen Elect Program, which aids pregnant and teen parents; Warron E. Smith, which provides outpatient psychiatric therapy; the Federal Migrant Education Program; Boat People SOS; Variety Philadelphia, a mentor program for special education students; the Lower Moyamensing Civic Association; and City Year.

Although Hackney believes it’s too early to call Southern a community school just yet, he hopes to continue the school’s work, adding more arts and music programs, building more partnerships, and serving a broader community for more days and longer hours.

“I think that’s when you really develop that community school model, where a school is open about at least six days a week and 12 months a year,” said Hackney. “We’re not to that point yet.”

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