This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It was the week before Christmas, and Edwin Rodriguez had just heard Mayor Kenney talk about how the city would be investing new resources in Southwark Elementary School, where his daughter is a 5th grader. He watched as leaders of several organizations that run afterschool programs at Southwark received awards of appreciation. He listened proudly as his daughter, Siani, played in the school’s band.
The occasion was to showcase Kenney’s signature effort in K-12 education – an initiative to create 25 “community schools” in the next five years. Southwark, ethnically diverse and in the heart of South Philadelphia, is in the pilot group of nine schools announced in July.
Rodriguez, who said he and his family considered moving to South Jersey, but liked Southwark so much that they stayed, is excited about its designation as a community school.
And yet, he said, “I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what it means.”
The city is nearly a year into a comprehensive, multifaceted process to answer that question.
Right now, the Mayor’s Office of Education is helping each of the nine schools and their neighborhoods determine their needs, priorities, and plans of action.
The premise underlying the community schools strategy, which has taken hold across the country, is a sweeping one. It is about reshaping the entire education delivery system in cities such as Philadelphia – where some 60,000 children live in conditions of “deep poverty” – by working harder to “create the conditions that lead to learning,” said Susan Gobreski, the director of the project in the Mayor’s Office of Education.
“The question has always been: ‘What do kids need, and what does it take to give them what they need?’” she said.
One main idea of the movement is that schools in poor urban areas should not operate in isolation from all the services and supports that students and their families need. The aim is to make schools into neighborhood hubs that link families and children to what they need to thrive – medical care, recreation, adult education, social and behavioral health services, and even such basic needs as food.
Philadelphia’s project “is causing people to rethink what their neighborhood school is there for,” said Miguel Garces, an analyst who has been organizing data collection for each school and its environs. “Can schools exist separately from their neighborhoods? We’re pushing back against that.”
But while the principle behind the initiative is panoramic, executing that vision is all about the details.
“Our office has convened thousands of stakeholders,” said Otis Hackney, Kenney’s chief education officer. “We have met with parents, teachers, and school principals, and are working closely with other city departments to understand needs and to align and expand resources for students and families. Tackling issues like food insecurity, trauma, and access to health services is critical to the future well-being of Philadelphia."
Assessing the needs
Over the summer and fall, the city collected lots of data, through surveys, focus groups, meetings, door-to-door canvassing, and observations. Garces also culled information from the census and other databases, analyzing, for instance, the number of foreign-born residents and mapping grocery stores, recreation centers, libraries, and health resources.
Each school has a steering committee, led by its own coordinator, comprising parents, teachers, older students, and community partners, such as afterschool programs and service providers. Three healthy school coordinators each cover three schools.
The nine schools are now finalizing their strategic plans, which include three main priorities and some secondary ones, along with a blueprint for addressing them. The plans will be released sometime in February, and then implementation will begin.
So far, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all community school.
Each neighborhood is needy, Gobreski said, but needy in a different way.
“They’re all high-poverty neighborhoods, but some have risk factors and others have different risk factors,” said Gobreski. “We developed a ‘stress index’ around poverty, health, food access, crime rates, education level” and other indicators.
Said Garces, “There is a lot of difference among neighborhoods. It’s not like everybody is looking for the same things. In some areas, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs. For some, it’s food access, while in other communities, that is not so much of an issue.”
Even the four schools with large immigrant populations have disparate needs.
At Kensington Health Sciences Academy, most of the students’ families are Spanish-speaking. In other schools, like Southwark, students are from multiple countries and speak many different languages. This requires more outreach and additional services in translation, interpretation, acculturation, and legal assistance.
However, some common themes have emerged. Health is a big piece of the picture – physical health, behavioral health, and access to nutritious food.
Each plan, Gobreski said, has a healthy schools component relating to either physical activity or nutrition. The city’s Health Department is working to “identify what interventions and strategies make sense in each school,” she said.
But even there, the needs are different. Some neighborhoods stressed high rates of asthma, others a lack of playground space. Most have a combination of needs and priorities.
Access to healthy food and food insecurity emerged as a common theme, but the severity varied. In some neighborhoods, the concerns were about children not having enough to eat on weekends and a lack of nearby places to buy fresh food and produce. In others, the students complained about the quality of school lunches.
“Social and emotional health and wellness concerns include things like a need for trauma-informed education, in some cases the need for individual supports and counseling for families,” said Gobreski.
People wanted help in accessing preventive care and dental and vision services. And to fight asthma, the Mayor’s Office is working with the District on the Green Futures project in removing asthma triggers in school buildings.
Families cited issues relating to insurance, or help accessing benefits they are not using but qualify for. They brought up absenteeism from school and home conditions that contribute to poor health.
Another theme was to create more afterschool activities, where students could get both academic help and physical exercise.
In communities with a lot of immigrants, parents wanted English-language classes. Other neighborhoods sought classes where adults could earn their high school diplomas.
Another issue, especially in high schools, has been a lack of good jobs for adults and students.
“They want to know how do you look for a job?” said Gobreski. “’How do you build up your resume through internships so you are a good candidate – if you can figure out who has the job in the first place.’”
She said that the city’s surveying department has opportunities for high school students to get paid internships for two summers that will make them eligible to take the civil service exam.
“They have internships available, but wanted support to identify those students, so our community schools coordinators are working with teachers and principals in each of the three schools to identify them,” Gobreski said.
They invited students to a meeting with the head of the surveying department, and 20 students showed up.
“This could lead to a good-paying job,” Gobreski said. “These are students who are good at math. A bunch of girls are going out for it.”
Although the data collection has been exhaustive, Gobreski said, the ultimate success of the program will be measured in people – “kids connected to jobs, immigrants connected to legal services – that will be measured in human beings, not data.”
The next group of five to seven community schools will be announced after City Council passes next year’s budget in June.