In a community garden behind Aspira Stetson Middle School in Kensington is a strip of land that before the end of the school year will host 81 newly-planted flowers, courtesy of Elizabeth Kim’s fifth grade class. But these will not be just any flowers, in any community garden. They are symbols: Each flower represents the family member of a Stetson fifth grader who was killed by gunfire.
“I have students who have lost loved ones, who come in saying gunshots kept them up at night, who saw someone sticking up a corner store,” says Kim. “This is something our students know about very well.”
The flower planting is the most visible outcome of a year spent exploring neighborhood issues—particularly gun violence—in Kim’s fifth grade class as part of Need In Deed, a service learning program that helps teachers bring community-oriented projects into their classrooms. Kim and her co-teacher, Alessandra Villella, were among 150 teachers in the Need In Deed network this year, at 40 District and charter schools around the city. Through guided research and conversations with community partners, each class of students picked an issue important to them; studied the causes and effects; and created a project that could help solve the problem, like raising funds for a cause, or educating their school mates—or planting flowers to raise awareness. In each case, the issue reflects the students and their neighborhoods: At Stetson, four of the six classes addressed gun violence, by far the most popular topic citywide year after year; at Society Hill’s McCall Elementary, students focused on healthy lunches, pollution and people with special needs.
Need In Deed started the way so many school programs do: Whim Lynch, a mom at Chestnut Hill’s Springside Academy, was dissatisfied with the school’s service learning program, so she volunteered to make it better. By 1987, when Need In Deed was incorporated, she had branched out beyond Springside, sending her employees into classrooms around the city to organize service projects with the students. Ten years ago, the program shifted direction. Now it’s a teacher network—one of around 25 in the city—that provides training and support to teachers, who then lead the service learning themselves. Need In Deed helps throughout the year with training, advice and resources—like classroom materials about a topic, or ideas for projects, or community partners out of what communications and development director Emily McNair calls their “30-year rolodex.”
“This works in Philly because of all the community organizations we have here,” McNair says. “We have a really rich civic society.”
The new approach has allowed the work of Need in Deed to spread throughout the District. In the last decade, some 300 teachers in 91 schools have brought the program to 27,000 3rd through 8th graders. “Need In Deed is for teachers who believe in the capacity of children to learn and excel and affect positive social change,” says McNair. “They are part of our network because they want to relate to students in a deeper way, and we help them do that.”
Through a survey of Aspira Stetson’s 150 fifth graders, Kim’s students discovered that more than half had lost a family member—and at least one had lost multiple. Now they are collecting the names, birth- and death-dates of each to include on a placard for each gunshot victim. The fifth-graders are also sending letters to the NRA and state representatives to lobby for stronger gun laws.
Need In Deed accepts 30 to 40 new teachers into the program each spring, with at least a two-year commitment. (The organization is accepting applications for next year now.) The program is free for teachers and schools; it’s funded by Need In Deed’s $800,000 budget, most of which comes from foundations, corporations and EITC grants. Kim, a third year teacher at Stetson, joined the network last year; her first class decided to build the school’s garden, as a way to fight pollution in their city. This year, she again followed the Need In Deed curriculum to help her students hone in on a topic. First, they considered different social issues impacting their neighborhood through a curriculum provided by Need In Deed—like a vocabulary lesson on words like urban blight. Throughout the fall, they researched four different topics—blight; bullying; disease; and gun violence—through readings and other materials that incorporated classroom learning into their real-world projects.
“The program provided a space for the students to explore these issues in a real world way,” Kim says. “You see students getting much more engaged and readily participating because they see the immediate connection.”
In December, Kim’s students voted to focus on guns. (“It was a clear winner,” Kim notes.) Then they spent several weeks narrowing the topic down, discussing race, police brutality, gun laws. (Of the Stetson classes that focused on gun violence, none chose the same avenue for their project.) Through Need In Deed contacts, Kim invited to her classroom a retired police officer; the director of a program that tries to steer kids away from violence; and a local photographer, Kevin Cook, who chronicles the homicides in the city’s 22nd Police District. It was one of Cook’s pictures that inspired the student’s final project: Of a t-shirt vigil in Northeast Philly, with a shirt draped over a pole for each of the 203 victims of gun violence in the city in 2013.
“The kids were most interested in how gun violence was affecting everyday people in their community,” Kim says. “When they decided to connect it back to our school, we thought of the community garden.”
Through a survey of the school’s 150 fifth graders, Kim’s students discovered that more than half had lost a family member—and at least one had lost multiple. Now they are collecting the names, birth- and death-dates of each to include on a placard for each gunshot victim. The fifth-graders have also taken what they’ve learned outside of school. After studying how guns are purchased and disseminated, they learned that the NRA is trying to overturn some Philly gun regulations. “The kids decided that shouldn’t be,” Kim says. Now they’re sending letters to the NRA and state representatives to lobby for stronger, not weaker, gun laws.
And Kim said one student proved the power of all his new knowledge. After learning about accidental gun deaths from children who happen upon weapons in the home, the boy explained to his grandfather—a former police officer—why the guns he kept in his basement could be dangerous, and how to participate in a gun buyback. Shortly after, his grandfather turned all his guns in to the local precinct.
“We were all amazed,” Kim says. “It’s exactly how you can apply what you learned in the classroom, at home.”
In late May, Kim’s students joined dozens of other Need In Deed participants for a social action fair at The Franklin Institute, where they propped up tri-fold posters about what they learned, and how they worked to solve a problem in their community. As other students and teachers approached their table, Kim’s fifth graders answered questions about the effects of gun violence with the eager mien of people who have just learned the magic of civic action—and the power that comes with being heard.
It’s a magic that McNair says she has seen Need In Deed perform over and over. She recalls talking to an 8th grader, who did a Need In Deed project at his Strawberry Mansion elementary school five years earlier. He was the only kid from his school accepted into Central High School—a path he says started with Need In Deed.
“He realized his teacher cared about him, and that he could make a difference in his community,” McNair says. “It was the reason he was inspired by school.”