Pa.'s top education official talks community schools, Phila. school building conditions

At a visit to Logan Elementary School, state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera talks with fifth graders Kiyonni King (left), Kai Waggner, and Abdul Diallo, who is the school president.

For the eight years that Chuanika Sanders-Thomas has been principal of Logan Elementary, she’s done her best to build partnerships and keep the small school moving forward.

This year, Logan became one of the city’s first round of community schools -- places that provide not just education, but also other programs and social services to remove students’ barriers to academic success. Logan and the other eight schools got community-schools coordinators to help identify needs and find outside help.

On Monday, Pennsylvania’s top education official came to tour Logan and see how the community-school model is working out. After a tour and a sit-down with Sanders-Thomas, other school personnel, and three bright Logan students, Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera said he was wowed.

“You guys have done an amazing job,” Rivera said.

Other districts across the state have expressed interest in community schools, but none has embraced it so fully as Philadelphia, where part of the soda-tax money is funding the initiative. Rivera said he saw the movement as a way to level the playing field for students.

“We really want to combat inequities in schools,” he said. “When a school serves families with all different kinds of needs, it impacts the quality of education.”

Rivera heard about Logan’s programs to bring parents in, its relationships with La Salle University and city police and a new effort to bring fresh, affordable food to the neighborhood.

The physical condition of Logan -- clean and well-loved, but with serious structural issues -- was not lost on Rivera. He said he hoped that the state’s PlanCon process, its system for funding school-building projects, would help. PlanCon is on hold as officials debate how to move forward with it.

Philadelphia officials last week released a report that said the School District has $4.5 billion in unmet facilities needs.

Logan, at 17th and Lindley Streets, is among the system’s buildings in the worst shape, with $22 million in outstanding repairs, according to the report. Sanders-Thomas said she and the building engineer constantly battle leaks; the boiler is a problem, the lighting is dim, and the bathrooms are in poor repair.

Rivera said he was hopeful that PlanCon officials would find a way to help districts like Philadelphia, which in the past got little money from the state because projects addressed basic structural needs rather than advancing new educational goals. PlanCon has got to find a way to fund not just large projects but small ones, going forward, Rivera said.

Philadelphia, he said, has daunting building needs now in part because of a historical lack of funding from Harrisburg.

“We can’t be in a conversation about facilities without a look at the overall education funding,” Rivera said.

Sanders-Thomas was gratified by the attention from the state, and said being a community school had made a real difference at Logan.

“The mayor’s name and the city’s name have really helped,” she said. “We have more people coming to us and saying, ‘What do you need?’”

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