How will Kenney's $40M community schools plan move forward?

South Philadelphia High School student Alayshia Bridges speaks at a press conference where city and school district officials unveiled plans for the current crop of nine community schools. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

Setting a path forward for one of Mayor Kenney’s signature initiatives, the city and the Philadelphia School District on Thursday released detailed plans for their nine community schools.

Fueled by $40 million in soda-tax proceeds over four years, some schools will focus on conflict resolution. Others will offer opportunities for children to be more physically active or eat healthier foods. Some will work on internship and job opportunities.

Kenney ran on a pledge to create 25 community schools in the city over four years. The learning institutions would also offer social services and other supports to neighborhoods. The goal is to remove barriers to learning so teachers can focus on teaching and students on learning, without many of the impediments that come with living in poverty.

The mayor said the initiative could keep city youth off a “nowhere track” to the streets, prison, or the cemetery.

“Our kids can succeed,” Kenney said at a news conference at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. “They can meet their potential if we give them the resources.”

Officials have budgeted $3.75 million this year for the schools: Cramp, F.S. Edmonds, Gideon, Logan, and Southwark elementary schools; Tilden Middle School; and Dobbins and Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and South Philadelphia high schools. Later this spring, they will announce a second round of community schools, but fewer than initially planned because of legal challenges to the soda tax.

Critics say community schools have not had much impact on academic outcomes elsewhere. But Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he was confident that Philadelphia’s nascent program will bear fruit -- increased attendance, more children reading at grade level, more children eating healthy food.

“Quite frankly, then we see a school district that has very different outcomes as a result,” Hite said.

Hite, Kenney, and Council President Darrell L. Clarke announced the plans at Tilden on Thursday, stressing that each school’s blueprint was a grassroots document that took into consideration the wishes of the community.

Alayshia Bridges, a junior at South Philadelphia High School, snagged an internship with the city’s Streets Department after community school coordinator Janelle Harper helped Bridges and some classmates land an interview.

Southern's status as a community school “has changed my experience,” Bridges said. “I now feel more connected.”

Southern has a new food bank and a clothes closet. Bridges volunteers at the clothes closet, but she has also taken advantage of it, she said, showing off a stylish black skirt she wore to the event at Tilden.

“I think community schools will help our community build,” Bridges said. “I think we should have more.”

Staff members surveyed more than 2,000 people to arrive at the plans, they said. Each plan is unique.

Mia White, a parent at Gideon Elementary in North Philadelphia, said the school’s plan -- and its status as a community school -- had been a boon. Gideon plans to focus on boosting safety, offering conflict resolution training for students and families, and looking for partners to help with counseling services. It also aims to help families be more physically active and healthy.

“We really need help with food,” said White, whose daughter is in fourth grade. “Our local stores don’t offer fruits and vegetables.”

As a result of the community schools program, every Gideon student is now eligible for a monthly backpack of healthy food, including brown rice and fresh produce. Soon, there may be yoga and zumba classes.

Parents feel heard, and students feel better about coming to school, White said.

“It tells the kids the school cares about them,” White said. “It’s not just, ‘Sit down, do your work.’ It’s ‘Are your basic needs met? Are you hungry?’ ”

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