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Creating a Model Elementary School
SUMMER PENN ANNOUNCED a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia
and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to create a University-assisted,
pre-K-8 public school in the neighborhood -- an initiative that drew praise
as a bold step toward improving local education and revitalizing West
Philadelphia, but also criticism from some community residents who fear
that they won't have enough input or that it may siphon resources from
other local schools.
"Nothing is more important to the health and vitality
of a community than the quality of its public schools, and that certainly
is the case in West Philadelphia," said Dr. Judith Rodin, CW'66,
president of the University, when the plan was announced in June.
"This will be a wonderful opportunity for children
in West Philadelphia," added Dr. David Hornbeck, L'71, Philadelphia's
superintendent of schools. "It will be a vibrant, diverse neighborhood
school, and it will join with other schools Š in a broad-based, long-term
effort to improve the quality of education."
Scheduled to open by September 2001, the facility will
ease overcrowding in other West Philadelphia classrooms and will serve
as a "demonstration" school, with a focus on student achievement
and professional development for teachers throughout the district. Typically,
university demonstration schools, or lab schools, are private. "This
is the first lab school that I know of that's a public school," says
Carol Scheman, Penn's vice president for government, community, and public
affairs. "In this way, I think we're breaking new ground."
The school will be built on the University-owned site
of the old divinity school, bounded by 42nd, 43rd, Locust, and Spruce
streets, which the University will make available to the school district
for a nominal cost. Once it opens, Penn will provide up to to $700,000
in annual operating support, or about $1,000 per student, to help reduce
class sizes through staff hirings. Although Penn officials hope a University-assisted
school will entice more faculty and staff to move to West Philadelphia,
they stress that the school's residence-based enrollment will reflect
the economic and racial diversity of the community and will not just serve
the children of Penn employees.
Also included in the vision for the new school are
plans to provide -- in partnership with the community -- after-hours services
like day care and adult education, along with recreational activities.
In addition, Penn will play a leadership role in the
two Cluster Resource Boards that serve West Philadelphia schools by helping
to make improvements in programs and facilities. (The district is divided
into 22 clusters of elementary, middle, and high schools). Dr. Susan Fuhrmann,
dean of the Graduate School of Education, will serve as the primary chair
of the West Philadelphia Cluster Resource Board, and Dr. Ira Harkavy,
C'70, Gr'79, director of the Center for Community Partnerships
at Penn, will serve as the primary chair of the University City Cluster
Penn also has agreed to work with the school district
to relocate the overcrowded Carver High School for Engineering and Science
to a University-owned site at the southwest corner of 38th and Market
streets. The district will be responsible for the construction of a new
"The project is a good example of enlightened
self-interest," praises a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial. "Penn
needs West Philadelphia to thrive, to preserve the university's appeal
to students and scholars, and good schools make neighborhoods thrive.
And it's using patient partnering, not bulldozing ahead on its own, to
cultivate its garden."
But at the same time, some community residents attending
forums on the issue questioned why they had to read about the partnership
in the newspaper before hearing about it from University officials. "I'm
not saying the school will be a bad thing," the Inquirer reported
Mark Basnage, a member of the Spruce Hill Association, as saying. "But
there has to be some way to recognize the interests and expertise in the
community." For several years the homeowners' group has been studying
how to improve local schools.
Others worry that Penn's commitment to this project
might drain resources from existing public schools, which the University
has assisted through its Center for Community Partnerships for the past
decade. Still another concern is that enrollment in the new school will
change the racial makeup of neighboring elementary schools, which rely
on their integrated status for extra government funding.
Scheman says it's too early to fill in many of the
details of the school partnership. "There [was] a lot of concern
that there was not enough consultation [before the announcement]. But
the only thing that has happened so far is that the University was able
to sign a memorandum of understanding with the school district and the
teacher's union to do this. How we do it, and all of the details, have
to come later, with a great deal of process and community involvement."
One point that is already clear is that the University's
commitment to the other West Philadelphia schools will grow, not shrink,
Scheman says. "What is currently happening is the base." An
example of Penn's increasing involvement, she says, is the co-chairing
of the cluster resource boards, which will allow Penn to work more closely
with the community and teachers in other West Philadelphia schools to
better coordinate Penn programs in those schools.
The demonstration school will give Penn's Graduate
School of Education more opportunities to train its students to teach
in urban classrooms and to conduct education research, while assisting
Philadelphia teachers with curriculum and professional development.
In fact, the new school is expected to provide educational
demonstrations for teachers throughout the district. "It's a benefit
not just to a single school, but to all schools in the Philadelphia School
District," Scheman says. As a demonstration school, it will be exempt
from the usual hiring and evaluation requirements specified in the teachers'
The site on which the school will be built currently
houses two child-care centers used by many University employees and a
private school, leaving many to wonder what will happen to those programs.
Scheman says Penn will make sure the child-care services continue. "President
Rodin understands clearly the importance of these centers to the Penn
community and our external communities."
Marni Sweet, director of the highly- regarded Parent
Infant Center, believes that the University is committed to preserving
both programs. However, she says, "I don't think they're far enough
in their planning to be absolutely sure whether we'll continue to exist
on this block. That's a matter of some concern, because outdoor play space
is terribly important to a day-care center, and this block offers some
of the best outdoor play space around.
"We're very hopeful that there's a way we can
be built into the plan for the new school," Sweet says. "There
are lots of opportunities for a partnership between the school and a child-care
center that would be much easier to do if they were all on the same site."
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Gazette Last modified 8/25/98