The “doomsday” budget cuts of 2013 had a particularly dramatic effect on Penn Treaty School in Fishtown. What had been a relatively small school for 6th to 8th graders became—thanks to school closures—a bustling 6 to 12 school serving 700 students from several different neighborhoods. All of a sudden, Penn Treaty administrators had students taking the SATs and applying to college; they had pregnant students in need of healthcare and babysitting; they had students using inappropriate sexual language, and couples fighting in the halls—none of which the middle school staff had handled before.
Complicating matters was a staff that was smaller than ever before—thanks to district layoffs. Besides teachers, the only adults in the building were a principal; two school counselors; a part-time nurse; and a few assistants. This small group would already have been bare-bones; now, the staff was stretched to a breaking point. “It was a massive transition,” says Penn Treaty counselor Sarah Touma. “You can’t imagine how difficult it was.”
What Penn Treaty did have that year was a lot of community support—thanks to an AmeriCorps program which provided the school with a full-time “community partnership coordinator” to harness the efforts of organizations, volunteers and service providers in the surrounding neighborhood. The coordinator was just one more adult in the building; but her efforts ensured the school had a stable supply of social service organizations, out of class programs and volunteers to meet student needs—health, social, family, college readiness—that went beyond the classroom.
“There are so many programs looking to connect with district students,” says Liz Shriver, from the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND), which runs the Community Partnerships VISTA Project. “They say ‘We want to partner with more schools but no one answers our calls,’ or ‘There’s no one to make sure the space is set up.’ The principals say, ‘We just don’t have the capacity to respond to all their inquiries and do our jobs,’ or ‘How do we even know this program is high quality?’ The community partnership coordinators make all of those connections happen.”
This acknowledges the reality that schools today are more than just places to learn reading and math; often, they are also necessary safety nets for children and their families.
PHENND’s community partnership project uses strategies pulled from a national movement that is offering a different kind of solution to school funding problems here and in other cities: Create “school-based family service centers,” more commonly known as “community schools” that serve not only as academic centers, but hubs for social service providers in the community. This acknowledges the reality that schools today are more than just places to learn reading and math; often, they are also necessary safety nets for children and their families. “Most people think of schools today as serving a single purpose: a binary, analog-system of delivery—teachers teach and students learn. Community schools are more akin to smart phones. Schools and communities connect, collaborate, and create,” notes the Coalition for Community Schools. This model has already been implemented in several cities with varying success, including Oakland, Hartford, New York City and the School District of Cincinnati.
In Philadelphia, everyone from Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools to City Council to Superintendent Bill Hite have touted the value of bringing community-based services into schools—though no one has yet figured out how to fund widespread change across an already strapped district. PHEEND’s program is not creating community schools exactly; the services in the building are still primarily geared towards students, not the larger neighborhood. But the program might offer a blueprint for how the spirit of community schools can be implemented in Philadelphia within traditional district schools.
At Penn Treaty—among the first schools to participate in the program— community partnership coordinator Caitlin Roman became the stop-gap for any type of issue that school officials couldn’t take on themselves. Students needed eye exams? She brought in Eagle Eye Mobile Health. College prep? Roman coordinated with AVID college readiness program. Health lessons? Eat.Right.Now. came in to do programming. Roman also became the school’s advocate with politicians, local businesses, grantmakers and the school community itself, running its Twitter feed and newsletter to spread the word about what was happening.
At the start of the school year, Penn Treaty’s nurse realized the school was unprepared to help pregnant students. So Roman found and brought in a program that offers free childcare and incentivizes school attendance, as well as runs comprehensive sex education for all ninth graders—two days a week for eight weeks, a step up from the previous system in which these topics were simply discussed in health class. In the winter of 2014, six Penn Treaty students in two months were rushed to the hospital after taking the drug K2 (laced marijuana). The school’s overburdened counselors asked Roman to help. “I mobilized our community partnership network, and we came and spoke at a community meeting,” Roman says. “From there, things really took off. We met with the local police precinct, with a Councilwoman’s chief of staff. The police started treating these cases differently. After that we saw a serious decrease in the use of that drug and were able to get the student we identified as distributing it removed.”
PHENND launched the community partnership coordinator program in 2013 with five schools; this year, 16 Philly District schools have VISTAs, who will serve for three years. (PHENND also has three VISTAs who work at the District, helping to coordinate their resources and services, and serving as liaisons between PHENND initiative and district.) Shriver says the goal is not to replace the resources that should be in all schools—trained teachers, full-time nurses, counselors, and other support staff—but to supplement and support them for the long haul.
“Full time school nurses and counselors are the natural partnership coordinators,” says Shriver. “They already naturally do that. That’s why we need them so badly, because they know the schools and the communities inside and out. Our program would work better with a fully-funded district and a team of counselors and nurses that the VISTA could work alongside.”
The PHENND program costs approximately $400,000 a year to operate, including $13,000 for each VISTA per year, training, professional development and other expenses. Currently, the program is funded through AmeriCorps and grants from The William Penn Foundation, Samuel S. Fels Fund and The United Way. In other cities, like Cincinnati, school resource officers are funded through Title I grants (for which Philly would also qualify) and from big local corporations like Proctor & Gamble. Rolling it out District-wide would require a commitment no one has yet agreed to make. Meanwhile, the list of schools ready to harness community resources continues to grow.
“We’ve always had more schools than positions we are able to provide,” says Shriver, of PHENND’s VISTA program. “The schools are ready. The schools recognize that they need help and are ready to start buckling down and figure this stuff out.”
Header photo: Penn Treaty School by Eli Pousson