Mayor Kenney Puts Money Where His Mouth Is

Mayor Kenney Puts Money Where His Mouth Is

Philly Set Go Board Member, Nolan Tully, Reviews Mayor’s Support for Community Schools Per His First Mayoral Budget Address

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“What we need [in Philadelphia] is community schools.  Schools that are the center of that community’s universe.”  That is a quote from then-candidate Jim Kenney, at a 2015 mayoral forum. The Coalition for Community Schools defines a Community school as “both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.”  While community schools are hardly new — Randi Weingarten made the concept a central part of her 2008 campaign for President of the American Federation of Teachers, for example — the concept has not gained significant traction in Philadelphia. As Mayor Kenney begins his effort to make good on his campaign promises, it appears that Philadelphia will become the next city to wholeheartedly embrace the community school model.

In his initial budget address, Mayor Kenney announced the creation of 25 community schools. With a nod to Council President Darrell Clarke, Mayor Kenney touted community schools as a policy with the potential to bring “real change” to Philadelphia.  Although the community schools concept is still somewhat in its nascent stages, there is a good amount of evidence to support Mayor Kenney’s position.

Community schools or community school concepts have been adopted in all different types of school districts, ranging from some of the nation’s biggest (e.g. Baltimore, New York and Chicago) to intermediate sized cities such as Cincinnati and Salt Lake City and even smaller districts like Allentown, Pennsylvania.  In all, approximately 5,000 schools in more than 150 communities have undertaken the community school approach, and those schools serve about 2 million students. Early returns on the efficacy of the community school model have been positive.  In Baltimore, for example, from 2009-2014, community schools increased average attendance by 1.6%, and decreased chronic absence rates by 4.1%. Chicago has made similar progress; schools that are deemed to have community school characteristics had better reading and math scores than similar schools that did not have “community school characteristics.”  Additionally, Chicago also saw a reduction in chronic absenteeism. While at first blush these reductions in absenteeism may appear modest, it is important to remember that the reductions are significant in and of themselves. If you speak with teachers in urban schools, you often hear some version of the refrain “I can’t teach them if they’re not here.” Additionally, in Baltimore, the reductions came in the face of a trend of otherwise rising absenteeism, making the reductions all the more impressive.

It is universally accepted that the public school system in Philadelphia needs real reform. The concept behind community schools is sound, and that concept has helped enact positive social change in other aspects of society.  In education, medicine, and delivery of other social services, the element of convenience – consolidating services into one location, and attempting to deliver as many services as possible at one time in one location, can significantly increase the impact of the multitude of programs that are available to the public. If Mayor Kenney and Philadelphia's City Council are willing to devote the resources necessary to make the Mayor's community schools proposal a reality, it has the potential to lead to a meaningful improvement in Philadelphia’s public schools and maybe, just maybe, lead to those schools becoming forces of positive change in some of Philadelphia’s most blighted communities.

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Photo source: @PhillyMayor