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Community schools: A key to improved behavioral health access?

Darryl Murphy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Antonio Romero’s introduction to the Kensington neighborhood came when he was barely taller than the farebox on a SEPTA bus.

“My field work started when I was 7,” he said.

His father drove the Route 3 bus through the area, and along the way, he would have his son interview people on the street.

“He taught me that everyone had a story,” said Romero, who grew up in Bucks County but has returned to the neighborhood to live and to serve as community schools program coordinator at Kensington Health Sciences Academy.

Now, when he interviews neighborhood residents, he is looking not only to learn about them but also to change their lives.

Kensington is one of nine schools in Mayor Kenney’s community schools initiative, which seeks to “improve access to programs, services, and supports.”

The initiative, supported over the next four years by $40 million from the city’s new sweetened-beverage tax, is projected to grow to 25 schools.

Detailed plans for each of the schools were released in March after a months-long process in which the School District and the Mayor’s Office of Education sought community input on what residents wanted for their schools.

Susan Gobreski, community schools director in the Mayor’s Office, said that although all nine school communities wanted more access to behavioral health services, two placed particular emphasis on it: Kensington and William Cramp Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

The numbers tell part of the story, and those who work in the schools tell the rest.

“The gentrification that has taken place around us has not trickled down,” said Kensington principal James Williams.

In his school’s neighborhood, 36 percent of adults report having been diagnosed with a mental health condition; the Philadelphia average is 20 percent. Forty percent of the households are below the poverty line.

In Cramp’s neighborhood, 60 percent of the households are below the poverty line, double the city average.

“One of our zip codes is the largest in the nation in terms of reported cases of child sexual abuse,” Williams said.

Community schools officials talk about making the schools a safe refuge, but they see no high wall between what goes on inside the school and what goes on in the homes and streets where the children live the rest of the day.

For the coordinators like Romero, tying progress in the schools to that of the neighborhoods is vital.

“He’s connected to the community in a unique way,” said Williams, who will be leaving the school in the fall to take a job at the District office.

One day, he might be at the school, counseling students, and the next he might be knocking on parents’ doors or meeting with partner organizations such as the University of Pennsylvania or City Year.

So far, the work is in preliminary stages.

“We’ve identified priorities,” Gobreski said. “We haven’t identified solutions.”

A cry for help

School officials and counselors at Kensington and Cramp cite three main issues involving behavioral health in the schools: removing the stigma of seeking help, bringing more resources into the schools, and connecting parents with services outside the schools.

Cramp principal Deanda Logan sees headway being made on the first issue.

Parents “are asking and in some cases, they’re begging or beseeching us: ‘Please help,’’’ she said.

“You don’t have to be a doctor or a psychiatrist or a psychologist to see the need.”

Williams said, “It’s making seeking support part of the fabric of the school.”

Kensington junior Zerrick Nathaniel agreed. “A lot of people’s mindset has changed,” he said.

Counselor Diane Finesmith said, “The students are much more willing to share and encourage others to share.”

Romero cited a recent poetry slam where the students shared details of their lives. “I’m amazed at their ability to share so much vulnerability,” he said.

Part of his job and that of Cramp community schools coordinator William Reed is improvising, drawing on outside partners, and making available resources go farther.

At Kensington, five University of Pennsylvania graduate students come to the school two or three days a week to counsel students under a grant from the Penn Futures project.

In addition to being close to the students’ ages, grad students Nicholas Allen and Ashley Valdez say their backgrounds are particularly helpful with a student body that is over half African American and Latino. Allen is biracial, and Valdez is bilingual.

At Cramp, Reed works with more than 60 community partners.

Curtis Institute, for example, has held violin lessons for 3- and 4-year-old Head Start children, who were provided instruments.

Neighboring Urban Hope Church donated $2,000 to help renovate the school library.

Counselor Joan Genaw brought the Center for Grieving Children in for an eight-week lunch-hour workshop for 4th and 5th graders who have lost family members.

Reed also plans monthly community partner meetings to better coordinate services.

The school has opened a parents’ room with computers, where Reed hopes to eventually hold computer and English classes.

But the move is already paying dividends. Luz Velez has a grandchild in kindergarten with ADHD and Delia Colon has a 3rd grader with the same diagnosis. Both said they had used the computers there to research it.

Getting parents more involved in the school can be harder than it sounds, principal Logan added. “Not everyone had a good experience in school when they were younger.”

Connecting parents with services that can’t be brought into the school is also a challenge.

“The services are out there,” said Kathy McClure, special education liaison at Kensington. “It’s telling parents where to go and what to do.”

Cramp counselor Genaw puts it this way: “I can tell someone to take your child to the [health] center for whatever and the parent’s going to say, ‘How do I get there? I have three other children to pick up and I have to get to my job.’”

Language can also be an issue in schools like Kensington and Cramp, where the enrollment is roughly 75 percent Latino.

Neither Logan nor Genaw speaks Spanish, but the School District will provide a bilingual counselor assistant two days a week next year instead of just one.

The school also requires that front office personnel, who greet parents, are native Spanish speakers. At Kensington, Romero and bilingual teacher Jim Hardy frequently are called in as interpreters.

And although it is still early in the project, Romero sees changes in the school’s atmosphere as a good start.

A lesson in responsibility

Antonio Romero’s father still drives a SEPTA bus, although not in Kensington.

And Romero, his suburban days behind him, still likes to recall his early lessons on the Number 3 bus, applicable now in the community schools program decades later:

“He didn’t want me to forget that there are two sides to every coin. That you had a responsibility to everyone around you.”

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