Philly adds two more community schools

Samuel Gompers School in Philadelphia's Overbrook neighborhood was designated a community school in August. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Samuel Gompers School in Philadelphia's Overbrook neighborhood was designated a community school in August. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Philadelphia and its school district have designated two more community schools, expanding the network to 11.

Gompers Elementary in West Philadelphia and George Washington High School in the Far Northeast were added Wednesday.

The initiative, a priority for the Kenney administration, is an effort to make schools neighborhood hubs for social services and other assistance for students and their families. Originally, the city had hoped to add five new schools this year, but cut back its plans due to continued litigation over the tax on sugary beverages, which is the source of funds for the program. The initiative costs about $3 million a year.

Mayor Kenney made the announcement in City Hall along with Council President Darrell Clarke, School Superintendent William Hite, and Otis Hackney, chief of the city’s office of education.

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“We’re losing time over this stupid legal challenge,” Kenney said. “The only way to overcome the cycle of poverty is through education.”

The beverage industry has sued over the tax that went into effect in January. The city won the first two rounds, but the case could head to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Kenney’s goal is to have 25 community schools within four years. He’s banking on the theory of a growing national movement that says addressing health and social-emotional needs of children and families in schools can create better learning conditions by mitigating the effects of poverty and stabilizing communities.

Kenney said that 24 schools had submitted applications, and that these two were chosen both for the quality of their submissions and to expand the geographic diversity of the cohort.

Hite said the initiative is part of a renewed effort to integrate city services into schools. “Community schools gave us the map or pathway to do that,” he said.

The first nine schools spent last year assessing community needs and developing action plans. Several have focused on nutrition, either through community gardens or by sending students home with backpacks of food near the end of the month.

Like the other nine, Gompers and George Washington will get a community schools coordinator who is paid by the city and will spend the first year assessing needs and developing a plan of action.

Gompers and George Washington both sit in solidly middle-class neighborhoods. The poverty and unemployment rates are below city averages in both neighborhoods, according to data released by the Mayor’s Office of Education. That’s a departure from the first nine schools, which were largely located in very low-income communities.

Striving for geographic diversity

The mayor’s staff placed a premium on geographic diversity in this round of selections, according to Susan Gobreski, the director Philadelphia’s community schools initiative. George Washington and Gompers are located far from Center City and in neighborhoods not served by the initial cohort of schools.

“One of the things we heard from Philadelphians when we did our community outreach work and our initial listening tour was how important it was for them to see this get to lots of places,” Gobreski said.

Gompers and George Washington also belong to council districts not represented in the first community schools cohort, Districts 4 and 10 respectively.

George Washington serves a large English-learner population; half the residents in the surrounding neighborhood were born outside the U.S. That melting-pot dynamic appealed to city officials as they sorted through applications.

Chris Miele, a teacher at the school, said 40 to 45 percent of the students are immigrants or first-generation Americans, from places as diverse as India, Eastern Europe, and West Africa.

“Just walking down the street, you’ll hear 20 different languages,” said Sana Ahmadi, a rising senior at George Washington, whose parents are refugees from Afghanistan. She estimated 60 languages are spoken by students at the school.

Miele said that Washington once had social programs in place for things like mental health, tutoring and mentoring, but  most “fell by the wayside” in the wake of budget cuts. He is hoping that the community schools initiative will restore those services, especially for the large population of newcomers.

Residents of the far Northeast often feel neglected by city government, but Ahmadi expressed the opposite sentiment when asked her reaction to George Washington becoming a community school.

“It makes me feel like words actually turn into action, and we’re actually being heard,” she said.

Gompers is a small elementary school in Overbrook; while the neighborhood has just a 13.6 percent poverty rate — about half the citywide rate — most of its 348 students comes from households below the poverty line. Almost all its students are African-American.

Gompers principal Phillip DeLuca wants to improve reading scores and attendance at the school. He hopes eventually the community schools initiative will make Gompers more desireable to neighborhood residents.

He imagines a future where “every single child living in Wynnefield is going to want to come to Samuel Gompers Elementary School.”

Teachers on board

The community schools initiative also has the strong support of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

“We at the PFT recognize that poverty presents formidable barriers for our children, and education is critically important to their future,” said Evette Jones, the union’s director of community outreach. “Community schools are designed to help students focus on learning by helping us to focus on their needs.”

As all parties wait for the tax lawsuit to resolve, the mayor’s office is taking what Gobreski called a “middle path” on expanding the community schools initiative.

The administration did not want to wait until the end of the legal conflict to start creating community schools, Gobreski said. But it also didn’t want to expand too quickly, leery of letting the program grow too large when its source of funding could potentially wither.

Right now the administration is using beverage tax revenue to support the community schools initiative. Since the network of schools isn’t expanding as fast as planned, there are some excess funds being held in reserve, according to mayoral spokesperson Lauren Hitt. The reserves will be used on community schools if the city prevails in court.

If the city does not prevail, it’s unclear what would happen to community schools and other initiatives sponsored by the beverage tax. Right now, “no other revenue has been identified that could support community schools,” Hitt said in an e-mail. 

She added, “Given that two Courts have now upheld its constitutionality, we are hopeful that scenario will not come to pass.”

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