New community schools coming to West, Northeast Philly

Mayor Kenney makes faces while meeting second graders at Gideon Elementary School.

Mayor Kenney on Wednesday added two schools to one of his signature initiatives — community schools.

Gompers Elementary, in Overbrook, and George Washington High School, in the Northeast, will join the nine existing community schools, which embed social services and other supports inside existing Philadelphia School District buildings.

Officials had hoped to tap more schools to join the program, but said the ongoing soda-tax litigation hampered their ability to add more to the fold. The program’s roughly $3.75 million budget is covered by the sugary-drinks tax.

Flanked by Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, Kenney made the announcement Wednesday at City Hall. He has said he plans to spend $40 million in four years on the program.

“We’d love to add more, but have to be mindful of expansion,” said Otis Hackney, Kenney’s chief education officer. “We thought we could add two schools without significant impact to our budget.”

Kenney ran on a pledge to create 25 community schools over four years. Hackney said that even with the small number of schools added in year two, the city would still be on track to reach that goal.

Come September, Gompers and George Washington will each get a city-paid coordinator to assess student and family needs and match them to resources in the community.

Each school gets to decide what its focus will be. Some now concentrate on nutrition, others on jobs, others on safety. South Philadelphia High School has a clothes closet and a food pantry. Gideon Elementary, in North Philadelphia, now sends students home with backpacks of healthy food monthly.

George Washington’s and Gompers’ focuses will be narrowed after the schools analyze needs and survey the community, officials said.

The goal of the model is to strip away children’s barriers to academic achievement, and to allow principals and teachers to focus on instruction rather than social and emotional needs. Critics say the community school model barely moves the needle on academics, but the first cohort of Philadelphia community schools say the designation has made a difference in their buildings.

Kenney has said he sees community schools — and expanded prekindergarten, another of his main pushes — as economic development strategies.

Phillip DeLuca, Gompers’ principal, is elated by his school’s selection, he said.

Gompers, a K-6 at 57th Street and Wynnefield Avenue, already has partnerships with St. Joseph’s University, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, and others. But DeLuca wears many hats as principal, and the amount of time he can spend cultivating such relationships is limited.

“It’s going to be great,” said DeLuca, who has been principal of the 400-student school for 15 years. “I can never say no to more people helping me. It’s another person to problem-solve with.”

At first, he was wary of the program, DeLuca acknowledged;  as a longtime district employee, he’s seen initiatives come and go. Would asking to be a community school mean his school wouldn’t be a public school? (Not at all.) But DeLuca asked around, talked to current community school principals, and ultimately completed and aced an extensive application process.

DeLuca grew up in the city, hanging out and later working at rec centers. He still lives in Philadelphia and sends his three children to its public schools. That his school was picked by the mayor means a great deal, he said.

“I believe in our kids and our system,” said DeLuca. “I don’t think people realize how good our schools are. With this program, I think the sky’s the limit.”

In all, 24 schools applied to be community schools. Hackney said he hopes the lawsuits clear soon and the city can add significantly more schools next year.

The initiative has the full-throated support of Clarke and of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, both of whom were early evangelists for community schools.

About Community Schools
What are they? Community schools have services embedded in them; they can be medical services, city services, job-training programs, etc. The idea is to build schools into hubs for their neighborhoods, to have a one-stop shop to meet the needs of members of the community. In Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney made a campaign promise to create 25 community schools in Philadelphia over four years. Chosen schools get a city-paid coordinator who helps assess needs and match them to available community resources.
The first cohort. In 2016, Kenney announced the first round of community schools, all traditional Philadelphia School District schools. They include Cramp, F.S. Edmonds, Gideon, Logan, and Southwark Elementary Schools; Tilden Middle School; and Dobbins, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and South Philadelphia High Schools.
Gompers Elementary School. Announced Wednesday, Gompers will join the ranks of community schools in September. The school, in Overbrook, educates students in grades K-7 (it is expanding to K-8 next year). Most of its students live below the poverty line. It expects to enroll 400 students in the fall.
 George Washington High School. Washington, a neighborhood high school in the Somerton section of the Northeast, enrolls over 1,300 students. Most of its students live in poverty.

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