This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Following are profiles of two community school coordinators – Charles Reyes at Dobbins Career & Technical Education High School and Beth Dougherty at Southwark Elementary.
Dobbins is located in a low-income, mostly African American neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Southwark is in a more diverse pocket of South Philadelphia that attracts both struggling new immigrants and upscale professionals.
Giving back to his alma mater
Charles Reyes has a personal connection to Dobbins CTE High School on Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia: He’s a 1993 graduate and he grew up in the neighborhood. Some of his family members still live there.
Reyes sees his work as a community school coordinator as a chance to make Dobbins “a beacon of light for the community.” He’s enthusiastic about being part of a renewal and works closely with principal Toni Damon.
In the last two decades, Dobbins has worked to modernize its vocational and technical offerings. It now offers options from sports marketing to culinary arts to biotechnology. But enrollment has declined. In Reyes’ day, the eight-story building housed about 1,500 students; now, enrollment is down to 650. Even though the students come from throughout the city, the enrollment is almost entirely African American and low income.
Reyes specialized in printing at the vocational school before going on to Peirce Junior College and Temple University, then entering the behavioral health field as a crisis specialist. He has long been active in the robust alumni association that is eager to help with revitalizing the school and the hurting community around it.
In a survey of residents and families conducted for the community schools effort, the most basic of needs topped the list: food insecurity.
“There’s no really good access to fresh produce and good-quality grade of food,” Reyes said. The closest supermarket is in Hunting Park. Small mini-marts “are on every corner, but they don’t offer a wide range of fresh produce. And the prices are high.”
Reyes has been talking with the health coordinator assigned to Dobbins about possible approaches – a food pantry? A farmstead program to provide discounted produce? Classes on healthy eating? Long-term, he foresees growth of community gardens.
Dobbins already had a tradition of its culinary program preparing a Thanksgiving dinner on the Friday before the holiday. The meal attracts hundreds of neighborhood residents.
Needs in physical, behavioral and mental health also surfaced in the research. The asthma rate is high.
“We have students dealing with a lot of stressful issues within the family,” Reyes said.
Residents also want access to better jobs and employment counseling and training, as well as adult literacy classes.
As daunting as the task seems, Reyes said, the initiative is already having an impact: People feel empowered. “They recognize something is taking place.”
“It’s not going to solve every issue,” he said. “But it can alleviate some immediate concerns. … My plan is to revive this community, reestablish relationships, and renew hope.”
Connecting in her neighborhood
Beth Dougherty’s office in Southwark Elementary looks like a converted closet. Even on cold days, she cracks the window open because the ancient radiator in her cramped corner of the nearly century-old building is always throwing off heat.
“When you come to work in a public school with a high-needs population, I would have found it suspect if I had a nice office,” she said with a laugh.
In any case, she is hardly there, as her job demands her to be out and about – meeting parents, cultivating partners, helping students.
Like Reyes, she has a connection to the school in which she now works, but hers is of a very different kind. She and her husband moved into the neighborhood about a decade ago, just before its real estate market started to take off.
But neither Dougherty nor principal Andrew Lukov see the school’s destiny as tied to gentrification.
“What I love about Andrew is that he is focused on the students who are here,” she said.
Those students are one-third Latino and one-third Asian, with the rest divided among African Americans, Whites, and Pacific Islanders. Half are English learners.
Dougherty has a 10-year-old son who started school before Lukov came to Southwark, and he attends a charter. But if her son were starting today, she said, “Absolutely, he’d be here.”
Raised in Kansas, Dougherty is an attorney. Before taking this job, she had led the neighborhood’s school booster group, Friends of Southwark.
After graduating from New York University, she spent a few years trying to make it in theater before coming to Temple for law school.
Her legal career took her all over the place. She worked in legal aid and on elder law, did trusts and estates in private firms, and worked with nonprofits on securing tax-exempt status.
“I never loved practicing law,” she confesses. So when the chance came to work in her neighborhood school on implementing a new idea with transformative potential, she jumped at it.
“Educational equity became the most important thing to me personally and politically,” she said.
“The more I learned, the more involved I got. I am so thrilled to have this job.”
When the community schools project began, Southwark had something of a head start. Lukov had been skillful in cementing partnerships with local organizations. Five groups already run afterschool programs at Southwark, but they serve only a fraction of the 660 students, and they all have waiting lists.
Leveraging partnerships to maximize their value is one of the coordinators’ key roles. With mayoral staff and some principals, the coordinators traveled to Baltimore in November to see how its well-established community schools system works.
An assistant principal at a Baltimore high school made the observation that wanting to do something for children and knowing how to be an effective partner are two different things.
“The worst thing that can happen is to set up partnership for failure,” he cautioned. “Like everything else, it’s about making those personal connections.”
Dougherty has taken that to heart.
“I loved the Baltimore trip,” she said. “It was really neat to see how schools, after several years, actually operate as hubs for their neighborhood.”
She also learned that the work is never quite done – constant relationship-building and adjustment are necessary.
Southwark, like Dobbins and the seven other schools, is in the process of finalizing its community schools strategic plan. In its needs assessment, English language classes and immigrant supports ranked high. But so did more academic help for students after school, more opportunity for physical activity, increased internet access for families, and help in accessing health insurance.
One thing that didn’t come up, in contrast to Dobbins, was food insecurity, although some students complained about the school lunches. Dougherty said she wasn’t that surprised, noting that plenty of stores in the neighborhood, even corner bodegas, sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
Dougherty said that the planning process has been instructive. It was always clear that Southwark would want to become a resource hub for English learner and immigrant families. Now, she said, “Instead of a big huge mass of stuff, it helped me whittle down the priorities.”
Meanwhile, she is working on becoming part of the school community. She hangs out in the office when she can. She doesn’t speak Spanish or another language, which pains her, but she has befriended the bilingual counseling assistants so she can talk to families.
“About three weeks ago,” she said wryly, “I held a waste can for a kid throwing up in the office. Now I’m ‘in.’”
As for the chance that the community schools initiative will have a transformative effect on Southwark and the other schools, she says: “I don’t think any of us are under any illusions. I don’t think six months from now, we will have changed anything on a grand scale. We’re adding things in a slow and measured way, building and building on it, and over the next couple of years, it’s going to develop. I think it’s going to be interesting to watch it unfold.”