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Media Mobilizing Project looks at Willard school revival

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia. The nonprofit group Media Mobilizing Project has launched the fifth installment of its series Revival from the Roots with a look at Willard Elementary. The series, which began last April, provides an inside look at successful neighborhood schools in Philadelphia.

The latest episode from the media-making nonprofit features Willard, located in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, Kensington, as it works toward becoming a community school. Willard is one of a handful of District schools that is striving for this model by providing extracurricular activities, health care services, and other wraparound supports to students and families.

Principal Ron Reilly said that the Philadelphia Eagles Youth Partnership’s Eagles Eye mobile visits the school every year to screen students for glasses. The school also uses the auditorium and conference room as makeshift dentist offices when the Ronald McDonald House stops by to provide dental work for students.

“We want to create schools that are places of hope and humanity. When people come to a place like Willard, that just shines through in so many different ways,” says Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United, in the film.

The Revival from the Roots series follows Gym, also a City Council at-large candidate, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan as they tour each school and speak to District students, teachers, staff, parents, and caregivers.

Willard serves a diverse and struggling population, including a large number of English language learner students.

“Seventy-five percent of our students are Latino,” says school counselor Maria Bronte in the film.

A lot of the school’s families, she said, have not been in the United States for long.

"They’re still trying to become used to the language, the culture, and there is a lack of knowledge in terms of community resources. So my job is not only to try to help them navigate the School District system, but to try to get them connected to resources in the community that they might not be knowledgeable of.”

Like many District schools, Willard has suffered as a result of massive budget cuts, losing a full-time nurse and librarian. But the school has been able to thrive. It has music, arts, and physical education programs. And parents are even stepping in to fill some of the gaps. Yarelis Morales, a parent and an EMT, volunteers two days a week, because Willard does not have a nurse.

Jordan says in the film that “when I walk into the school, I always see happy kids and happy staff.”

Reilly attributes the positivity to a dedicated and consistent staff that “has been around for years."

“Willard is just an amazing school. It’s a school that all of the teachers are very happy to work in. The principal has tremendous pride and the parents love it,” Jordan said.

Revival from the Roots has also featured West Philadelphia High School and Lea, Barry, Penn Alexander, Edward Steel, Luis Munoz Marin Elementary Schools and the now-closed Wilson Elementary.

See previous episodes in the Revival from the Roots series.

Camden Copeland is an intern at the Notebook.

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