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Yes, school 'friends' groups are a movement

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  • fone summit
    Lauren Summers

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When does an idea gain enough momentum to be considered a movement? It’s hard to note the precise moment, but after the Friends of Neighborhood Education Summit on April 2, this constellation of school support groups certainly has gathered the critical mass needed to affect positive change.

The energy was palpable as 150 representatives from 45 Philadelphia public schools and organizations from across the city braved rain and wind to share and learn strategies that support neighborhood elementary schools. These volunteers gave up a Saturday morning to go to the United Way building, roll up their sleeves, and take responsibility for supporting their neighborhood schools.

The day started with the Men of Mitchell, a group of middle school students attending Mitchell School in Southwest Philadelphia who mentor younger students about the importance of education. Earlier this year, the Inquirer published an article featuring the school, prompting FONE leaders to meet with the principal to share what they had learned about engaging communities to support their neighborhood schools.

Next, leaders of several “friends” groups shared some of their accomplishments from the last year: paper drives, fundraisers, tours for real estate agents, toddler story hours … the list goes on.

Afterward, participants chose from a variety of breakout sessions. Topics included forming a friends group, communications strategies, collaborating with other groups, building a school yard, what your principal needs from a friends group, and building diverse and inclusive friends groups.

After its initial summit a year ago, FONE received criticism for the lack of diversity in its membership. As friends groups appeared to be originating in areas of the city experiencing gentrification, FONE made a concerted effort to reach out to neighborhood elementary schools across the city. Given that 60 percent of Philadelphia’s zip codes were represented at this year’s summit, there seems to have been some success in this area. Although this is positive, it is not enough, and the group will continue to make outreach a priority.

At the conclusion of the summit, attendees voted on the organization's next steps. First and foremost, members want FONE to be a resource to all friends groups. It will continue to develop its how-to toolkit of successful strategies for community involvement in neighborhood schools. Second, members want this movement to continue to spread out citywide, particularly to unrepresented schools. FONE wants to stay independent and flexible. It does not want to become too institutionalized and lose sight of its grassroots origin.

So, is FONE a bona fide movement? As Scott Goodson, author of Uprising notes, “Movements – the kind that gather around positive, creative, dynamic ideas – can help build a better, fairer, more sustainable, more interesting world. And creating a movement can be a hell of a lot of fun because there’s nothing quite like a good uprising to get the blood circulating.”

The FONE summit showcased positive and dynamic ideas that support neighborhood public schools and the communities they serve. And as someone who has been involved from its inception, I can testify that while building FONE has required determined work, it certainly has been fun. Yes, FONE is a movement. A movement on the rise.  

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'Friends' groups gather citywide to build support for neighborhood schools

Christine Carlson

Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.