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‘Friends of’ groups band together to support neighborhood schools

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

Marketing and fundraising. These are just two things that the newly minted Friends of Neighborhood Public Education wants to do on behalf of Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools, which sometimes get a bad rap.

The idea for a network of "friends of" groups brewed in the minds of founders Ivy Olesh, Christine Carlson and Jeff Hornstein months before the initial meeting. All three are active in the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition’s education committee.

A couple of months ago, "We sent out an email to 10 people we thought might be interested," said Jeff Hornstein, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association and co-founder of the group. "Forty people showed up."

The group held a summit at the Friends Center, 15th and Cherry Streets, drawing about 150 people on a rainy Saturday morning in March.

People from established "friends of" groups and those interested in starting one of their own showed up to hear workshops in four areas: how to start a "friends of" group, how to work with their principal, how to navigate the School District, and planning for creating a city-wide advocacy strategy, spread over five hours.

Much like Home and School Associations or Parent Teacher Associations, established "friends of" groups can bring in much-needed resources and participate in strategic planning for a school.

"We’re the fundraising arm for the school, and we’re also the PR arm for the school, " said Olesh, founder of Friends of Chester A. Arthur (FOCA), an elementary school in Southwest Center City. "We make sure that the great things going on in the school make their way out into the community, so we get community buy-in, and make sure the resources of the community are making their way in."

One example: FOCA recently brought in a $70,000 grant from the Lenfest Foundation for an afterschool program at the school.

As for marketing, the founders said it can be difficult to get parents to even consider their neighborhood school. "Friends of" groups work to get parents — and even realtors — into schools so that they can form their own opinions.

"Once they go in the door of the school, they’re going to find something they really like," said Carlson.

The group is hoping to take that public relations work citywide and start mending some of the negative publicity caused by years of underfunding.

"We hope to do some sort of PR campaign to rebuild the brand," said Hornstein.

Some education advocates are skeptical of a piecemeal approach to help schools.

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