This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
There is no such thing as a typical community school.
Different versions of that sentiment have been repeated ad infinitum by members of Mayor Kenney’s administration as they’ve readied the public for the new community schools initiative. Now that Philadelphia has officially named its first nine community schools, those careful disclaimers have been borne out.
The group of schools named Monday represent a wide range of student subgroups, academic track records, and neighborhoods. No two schools better represent that range than Edward Gideon, a K-8 school north of Brewerytown, and Southwark, a K-8 school near East Passyunk Avenue.
Gideon sits in a census tract where more than half of the residents live below the federal poverty line, where the median family income is just a hair over $12,000 a year, and where two-thirds of residents over age 16 are either not in the labor force or unemployed.
When principal Shauneille Taylor talks about the challenges facing her students, she’s thinking about the basic necessities. Taylor keeps a cupboard full of emergency granola bars, dispensing them to students when she can tell they haven’t eaten.
“At times, that’s the only meal that they’re receiving,” she said.
The neighborhood surrounding Southwark is a different world.
Located three-and-a-half blocks east of a booming commercial corridor, Southwark is in the crosshairs of gentrification. Median home values in the surrounding neighborhood are $75,000 above the city average, and rose nearly $20,000 between 2010 and 2014.
Still, Southwark’s students face enormous challenges, in part because the school population doesn’t yet reflect the changes in the surrounding neighborhood. Almost half of Southwark students are English language learners, and many have fled violence and poverty in their home countries, said Beth Dougherty, chair of the East Passyunk Avenue Civic Association’s Education Committee.
“When kids hear a thunderclap or hear a police siren, they dive under the desk because these are kids from refugee camps,” said Dougherty.
Southwark will likely focus more on uplifting the school community itself and less on the community surrounding the school, she said. Leaders also want to make sure they aren’t using the community schools initiative to improve Southwark in a way that accelerates gentrification.
“We’re really aware of this, and we are struggling ourselves to figure out how to keep the neighborhoods from basically kicking kids and families out,” Dougherty said. “You make a school great, and then the families can’t afford to live there. How do you stop that from happening?”
All of which is to say, each community school will be confronting a distinct set of problems.