In Northwest, two groups that bring community assets to schools
Whether they are gathering at the neighborhood’s nightspots on Germantown Avenue or the annual Mount Airy Day celebration, Mount Airy residents take pride in a racial and economic diversity that is unusual in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.
But, for the most part, that diversity is not reflected in the neighborhood’s public schools.
Over 90 percent of the 2,200 students who attend Mount Airy’s four elementary schools are African American. Well over half of the schools’ students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, despite being located in a zip code with the fourth highest median household income in the city. The many private schools in the area provide alternatives to families who can afford them.
Since 1996, the Mount Airy Schools Committee has been working to create a sense of ownership of the public schools among all of the neighborhood’s residents, regardless of where their children attend school.
Started by the neighborhood’s two civic associations, West and East Mount Airy Neighbors, the Schools Committee is a volunteer organization with the mission to "bring the schools into the community and the community into the schools."
The Committee has raised awareness of the neighborhood’s public schools through a dizzying array of initiatives including volunteer projects, monthly meetings of school staff, parents, and community residents, and solicitation of donated books and supplies for the schools. They work in the neighborhood’s four elementary schools: Emlen, Henry, Houston, and Lingelbach.
"People want to get involved but they don’t know how to, so we’re sort of the middleman in that way," said Schools Committee Chair Eleanore Pabarue.
And no project seems to be too big or small for the group.
"It’s amazing what different organizations can bring to the table," remarked Terri Rivera, the committee’s School-Community Liaison and the group’s sole staff person. "It can be as big as a church deciding to follow a group of students over several years, or it can be a group wanting to make a one-shot donation."
When longtime Mount Airy community activist Barbara Bloom decided she wanted to start a tutoring program in a neighborhood school, for example, she turned to the Schools Committee for the long-term support they could offer, though she was already familiar with the schools.
"It really takes someone who’s very independently motivated to keep coming back [to volunteer] time after time when you’re not getting any outside support," Bloom explained. "It’s a little easier to come back time after time when there’s an outside regular support who expects you to be there and is willing to say, ‘How’d it go?’"
Caren Trantas, in her first year as principal at Henry Elementary, said the Schools Committee has also been a "wonderful support system" for her.
Trantas has been a principal and assistant principal in other Philadelphia schools, but said she has found the Schools Committee to be unique – "to have a community body that is so willing to support and work with us in every endeavor."
Pabarue emphasized that the community benefits from the Schools Committee’s work as much as the schools do.
She hopes that bringing volunteers into the schools and creating opportunities for principals, teachers, parents, and community members to meet regularly will help to create a greater sense of community in the neighborhood.
Recently, a branch of the committee called the Information and Advocacy Project has been sharing information with parents of school-aged children in an effort to highlight the positive aspects of the neighborhood’s public schools and to encourage families to consider them as options for their children.
Ultimately, Pabarue said, she hopes the Schools Committee can change Mount Airy residents’ perception of the public schools and to make them more reflective of the diversity that is so celebrated in the neighborhood: "When people have an option between private and public schools, we want them to be able to entertain the public school as an equally viable choice."
In another part of the Northwest Region, the Northwest Stakeholders Group has also been bringing community members into the schools through a recently launched mentoring program for students at risk of becoming truant.
An effort of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services’ Division of Community-Based Prevention Services, nine "Stakeholder Groups," composed of social service providers and community representatives, have been given the charge of finding community-based, preventive solutions to truancy problems.
The Northwest group has received a grant from DHS to tap into the power of one-on-one mentoring as a truancy prevention tool.
Building on a program at Roosevelt Middle School, the program pairs students who are at risk of becoming truant with adult mentors from the community. In addition to meeting weekly with mentors, students will meet as a group on a weekly basis to talk about issues like peer pressure, violence, and drug awareness.
The program will include 15 to 40 students at five schools in the region: Roosevelt, Pickett, Wagner, Wister, and Levering. The program has already started at Roosevelt and is set to begin in late March at the other schools.
For Northwest Stakeholders Group co-chair Rev. Curtis Dredden, the need for the program is personal. As a student at Roosevelt in the mid-1970s, Dredden said, "I was using drugs, smoking marijuana, everything, when I wasn’t in school….We’re trying to give them another way, as opposed to the way I did it."
Dredden, who also has a ministry with prisoners, said that he was drawn to this program because of its preventive goals. "This will save their lives and will give them something to work with when they get out of school," he said.
The Stakeholders Group has recruited and trained 25 mentors so far. They are looking for more individuals in the Northwest Region who are interested in becoming mentors.