This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On a small plot of land wedged between South Philadelphia High School’s parking lot and the sidewalk, Arielle Narva works with a 17-year-old named Kahlil to turn over soil in raised garden beds.
"This bed that Kahlil is working on right now, he’s kind of prepping it so we can plant tomatoes, hot peppers, all that summery stuff," said Narva.
Narva said the garden has become a place for kids to congregate and learn during and after school. She described a biology and English language learner teacher taking his students to learn about the "life of a seed" in the garden, while also improving their English. Thanks to a partnership with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, it will also give jobs to some students this summer.
Narva works for Sunrise of Philadelphia Inc., a nonprofit that runs afterschool programing at two sites in the Philadelphia School District. It’s one of a menu of partners at South Philly High, which include a health center and groups offering mental health services, night classes for adults, and credit recovery programs, among others.
Principal Otis Hackney said his school has to be different because its students are different.
"How this District works, and the number of high schools that we have and school choice … it concentrates types of students," said Hackney, noting that there are magnet schools for the academically gifted students and arts schools for creative students.
There are also a lot of neighborhood schools like Southern. "What it does is it concentrates students with high needs," he said. "So if I have high concentrations of students with high needs, I need to make sure I have high levels of support."
What is a community school?
"High expectations with high support" is nearly a mantra for Hackney.
It’s this kind of thinking that gets advocates for community schools excited. "Community schools" is a broad-brush label for schools that co-locate medical care, social services and community educational resources in a school building. Having a single point of service keeps students from missing school for things like doctor’s appointments, and reaches families in need where they are.
The thinking goes that if you can address needs like poverty, adult literacy, and health care in a neighborhood school, whole communities will benefit.
Nationally, Cincinnati’s Community Learning Center model is the flagship of the community schools movement. Once declared Ohio’s worst school facilities by the federal government, Cincinnati now credits community schools with improving graduation rates.
The New York Times and some education reformers have noted that gains in overall academic performance in Cincinnati’s community schools are incremental, not necessarily the dramatic upswing needed to make the schools academically competitive.
Still, many in Philadelphia, from City Council President Darrell Clarke to the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), view community schools as a way out of a stagnant, perpetual funding crisis that leaves students without supports.
Politicians, including Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney, like to point to South Philly and Otis Hackney as the way forward. At a mayoral forum this year, Kenney called out both by name.