Fitting all the Pieces Together: An interview with Daniel Merin, Comegys Community School Site Director
By Caitlin Fritz
A key mechanism to executing a successful community schools strategy is a site coordinator who facilitates collaboration between school and community partners, and ensures that activities and resources are aligned to school and community needs as well as classroom instruction. In many cases this may mean bringing in new partners and resources or nurturing existing relationships. Across the country there are various models that work to achieve some level of site coordination. In some cases this is done through an intermediary organization such as a university, the United Way or a local non-profit (like the YMCA). In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships has been working with five schools in West Philadelphia through its University Assisted Community Schools (UACS) model.
UACS mobilize resources from institutions of higher education to educate and serve both students and families by linking school day and after-school programing. Each school site has at least one site director from the Netter Center, while Penn students provide additional supports through a variety of programs. I recently interviewed Daniel Merin, who is in his third year as Site Director for Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary School, a Netter Center UACS.
Caitlin: As site director, how do you support Comegys School?
Daniel: I work collaboratively with the principal, teachers, families and partners to make sure that programs and services are integrated and address community needs. The principal and I use a spreadsheet of all the partners working in the school and look for gaps, overlaps, and ensure partner activities connect to school priorities. It is important that opportunities offered after-school are linked to classroom learning. For example, I helped to coordinate an after-school and day school art program at Comegys with the University City Arts League.
Caitlin: What is your role in partnership development?
Daniel: In many ways I am a ‘broker.’ As I am introduced to new potential partners and programs, I pass the information along to the appropriate folks at Comegys. I recently came across SPARK, a mentoring program that is currently at Lea Elementary (another UACS school). I met with the Comegys school counselor to see if this program was a good fit for the school and then we brought it to discuss with the principal. Hopefully, it will be be a program of Comegys next school year. Another new partner is DVAEYC (Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children). They have a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program for grades K-3. I helped arrange meetings with DVAEYC and Netter Center’s science programs. Now, I can easily plug in Penn students interested in teaching science to support this program. This is a mutually beneficial program, as I get DVAEYC students and they help me with parent and family engagement.
Caitlin: You talk a lot about connecting programs with what is going on in the classroom. Why is this important?
Daniel: I think one of the most important pillars of a community school strategy is transformation of the curriculum. Learning that is culturally and locally relevant which connects the various disciplines, math, social studies, etc., can be very powerful. Last year Comegys received a grant from PECO that supported a student project looking at asthma in their community. The Comegys 5th grade students were able to present their project at the Franklin Institute last spring. I’m currently working with the same classroom teacher to coordinate a project for another 5th grade group, where they design scientific investigations about what is going on in their school. This type of integrated learning is empowering for our students.
Caitlin: In what other ways do you think are the benefits of a community school strategy?
Daniel: Community schools can also have an economic impact through funding jobs for those from the community who can work directly with children from their neighborhood. I have 10 part-time staff who work in after-school programs at Comegys, 4 of whom live in the neighborhood. We will also have a summer program that will allow us to hire up to twelve staff as well to work up to 35 hours per week.
Caitlin: Now your position is actually not funded by the School District of Philadelphia, even though you work at a district school. Does that present any challenges or opportunities?
Daniel: Not being a District employee gives me a lot of autonomy. I don’t always have to physically be at the school which leaves me freer to meet with a potential new partner or make home visits. A drawback is, while I have a physical office at the school, I am not necessarily always listed as someone who is in the building. New teachers may not know how to utilize UACS staff. At the Community Schools Forum in New Mexico earlier in April, I learned the importance of branding the role of the community school site director and the need to create more visibility.
Caitlin: Any other takeaways you would like to share?
Daniel: I’ve also been working with the principal to evaluate the impact of our UACS model. One thing we have learned is to look at the complete picture of what is going on in the school. At first we started looking at the impact of individual programs, but we found out that many students are engaged in multiple programs, so we have begun looking at what is the collective impact of all the different pieces working together in our school.
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