Amidst changes in Southwest Region, some partnerships flourish
Since last May, I have been getting to know parents and organizations working with schools in the School District’s Southwest Region as part of the Notebook’s community outreach project.
Encompassing Bartram and West Philadelphia High Schools and their feeder schools, the Southwest Region has been particularly impacted by the School District’s recent changes. Nearly half of the schools in the region – 12 total – were designated “partnership schools” last spring. Nine of them are now run by private managers and three are “restructured” (still managed by the District but receiving more resources and supports).
Last May, the School Reform Commission held community meetings at each of the partnership schools in the region in an effort to get public input on the proposed changes. I attended several of them to get a feeling for the community members’ response.
The four meetings I attended at schools
slated to be run by Edison Schools Inc. were in sharp contrast to meetings at other schools. They revealed a sense of mistrust and fear among
parents, who voiced serious doubts about whether Edison was what they needed.
At Anderson Elementary School, an Edison-managed school, parents at the community meeting demanded to see in writing what kinds of changes were planned for the school and asked what kind of input they would have in the process.
Several Anderson parents raised strong concerns about large class sizes, one parent telling Commissioner James Gallagher and the Edison official at the meeting, “All we want to know about is class size,” and another suggesting, “If you can’t reduce class size, then don’t give us a new program.”
At Harrity Elementary School, parents voiced similar concerns about Edison and the lack of parental input in the process. Betty Davis, the Home and School president, asked, “Why haven’t parents been able to vote on the process? Shouldn’t parents have the right to choose?”
When I spoke with parents from those schools a week after school started this fall, they expressed mixed sentiments about the new school year. Still waiting to see what the presence of Edison really meant, they wondered if the “partnership schools” would embrace parents as true partners.
“I’m still against Edison,” a parent from Anderson told me, “because the changes seem to take away the power of parents.” A member of the school council, this parent was still waiting to see if she would be invited to a meeting.
A parent from Harrity expressed a sense of resigned optimism. She felt hopeful about the new principal, but also said, “We believe it’s a done deal. We have to accept what’s there. As long as they do the job that they promised to do, I can go along with it.”
While parents’ anxieties about the changes still persist at these schools, one organization that has been playing a watchdog role for changes in the area is the Philadelphia Student Union, a citywide student organizing group. The Student Union has chapters at Bartram and West Philadelphia High Schools where students have organized around issues including poor facilities, the high cost of tokens, and school privatization.
The Southwest Region also reveals numerous community-based resources that inspire confidence that many schools, students, and families throughout the area are receiving other needed supports from community organizations.
Three family centers – the Huey Family Center, Eastwick Family Center at Pepper Middle School, and New Start Family Resource Center at the Southwest CDC – assist families through a wide range of activities including computer classes, parenting education, TANF assistance, and after-school and summer school programs in schools.
Other organizations, such as the African Cultural Alliance of North America and Asian American Youth Association, offer after-school and summer school programs that address the needs of specific student populations in the area.
Nearby universities provide student volunteers who help with any number of projects in area schools – everything from tutoring to tree planting to setting up a school-based health center.
In August, I attended a meeting of the Southwest and West Philadelphia Region Resource Board, where many of these groups and others came together to talk about the projects they had been working on in schools in the area.
Representing more than 25 area non- profits, businesses, and civic associations, the Resource Board serves as a matchmaker between schools and organizations in the Southwest and West Regions. Just a few of the projects the Resource Board has helped with include: finding community speakers for career days and health fairs, arranging for free or reduced-price admission to local cultural institutions, and connecting students with mentors and tutors from the community.
The Resource Board meeting was an inspiring example of what can happen when people doing similar work and with similar interests start to talk to each other. In a packed room in the middle of August, you could almost see the positive energy generated as people shared examples of their work with schools and pooled knowledge and resources.
For information about the Resource Board, contact Cory Bowman at (215) 898-0289.
As the Southwest Region begins a new year marked by change and continued apprehension among community members about top-down reform initiatives, it seems that it is just these sorts of grassroots connections within the community and conversations among groups that are necessary to make true “partnership” schools.
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The West Philadelphia Stakeholders Group is another effort to /ping together organizations and community members in the Southwest Region, this time to address truancy problems in the community. To get involved, contact Silvino Alexander at Children’s Services Inc. at (215) 748-2997.
This fall, the Notebook’s community outreach project will focus on the Central Region (the former Franklin, Penn, Gratz and Strawberry Mansion clusters). To let us know about your efforts, contact Amy Rhodes at (215) 951-0330 ext.160 or email@example.com.