The city and School District named two more community schools Wednesday, expanding the network to 11.
Gompers Elementary in West Philadelphia and George Washington High School in the Far Northeast were added.
The initiative, which has been a priority for Mayor Kenney's administration, is an effort to make schools into neighborhood hubs for social services and other assistance for students and their families. Originally, the city had hoped to add five schools this year, but it 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.
Kenney made the announcement at City Hall, along with Council President Darrell Clarke, School Superintendent William Hite, and Otis Hackney, chief of the city’s Office of Education.
“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. The city won the first two rounds, but the case could head to the Supreme Court.
Kenney’s goal is to have 25 community schools within four years. He’s following 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 nine others, Gompers and George Washington each will get a community schools coordinator that is paid for 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 average 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 of Philadelphia’s community schools initiative. Both 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 City Council districts not represented in the first community schools cohort – Gompers in District 4 and Washington in District 10.
George Washington serves a large English learner population; half the residents in the surrounding neighborhood are foreign-born, according to city data. That melting-pot dynamic appealed to city officials as they sorted through applicants.
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 that 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 that for the most part they “fell by the wayside” in the wake of budget cuts. He hopes that the community schools initiative will restore those services, especially for the large newcomer population.
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. Although the neighborhood has just a 13.6 percent poverty rate – about half the citywide rate – most of its 348 students come from households below the poverty line. Almost all of Gompers' students are African American.
Gompers principal Phillip DeLuca wants to improve reading scores and attendance at the school. He hopes that eventually, the community schools initiative will make Gompers more desirable 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 fast, 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 initiative. Because 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."