Introducing the new faces in the Mayor’s Office of Education and their plan for community schools in Philadelphia
Interview by Caitlin Fritz
2016 has brought Philadelphia a new Mayor, Jim Kenney, who has outlined an expansive vision for education in the city. A crucial component of Mayor Kenney’s plan is his pledge to create 25 community schools over the next four years. Leading the effort to develop a community school strategy for Philadelphia is the Mayor’s Office of Education, including Chief Education Officer Otis D. Hackney III, and Director for Community Schools, Susan Gobreski. I recently had a chance to talk the Mayor’s new team about the plan to expand community schools in Philadelphia.
Interview with Otis D. Hackney III
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what is your background, and what was your previous role before coming to the Mayor’s Office of Education?
A: I was born and bred in Philadelphia. I’m a graduate of West Philadelphia High School, Temple University (B.A. Secondary Mathematics Education) and Lehigh University (M.Ed. Educational Leadership). I began my career in education as a math teacher at Germantown High School where I also served as a Varsity Basketball Coach and Team Leader of the Ninth Grade. After completing my principal’s internship at Overbrook High School, I served as assistant principal at South Philadelphia High School (Southern). I served as principal of Springfield Township High School for two years until I decided to return to Southern. Many people in Philadelphia are familiar with the racial tensions and violence at Southern in 2010. I returned as principal to improve school safety, climate and culture and was committed to turn the school around.
Q: Describe your current role in the Mayor’s Office?
A: My current role in the Mayor’s Office is to carry out Mayor Kenney’s two education priorities: expanding quality pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds who currently lack access, and creating 25 community schools that deliver wrap-around services to students and families. In addition to these two priorities, we are also looking to better align and increase opportunities for Career and Technical Education (CTE). Furthermore, I advise the Mayor on local, state, and federal educational policy and our office serves as an education resource for constituents.
Q: What are your main priorities for education in Philadelphia, and how do community schools fit in?
A: At the core of this administration’s main education priorities (pre-K and community schools) is a commitment to improve the way that the City meets the needs of our students so they are better equipped to succeed in the classroom and in life. First, we need to ensure that all students arrive to their first day of Kindergarten ready to learn with the social and emotional skills that quality pre-K develops. This helps teachers in the lower grades to focus on instruction and increase literacy, instead of reinforcing social and behavioral skills.
In addition, we believe that establishing community schools is a key way the City, educators, school personnel, service providers, parents, and community members can work together to identify student needs, and strategically align City and community services to meet those needs. The community schools approach will help to remove the non-academic barriers to learning, like health, hunger, or shelter. This will help teachers focus on instruction and to provide enrichment opportunities instead of addressing the plethora of challenges that poverty imposes on our students.
Q: What is your vision for how university partnerships can support education efforts and community schools here in Philadelphia?
A: We see higher education playing an important role within a community schools strategy. Each community school’s services will be uniquely tailored to the needs of that specific community. We hope that schools will partner with our city’s diverse universities to create expanded learning opportunities for students. Many schools already have terrific partnerships with universities and we will work to build on the great activities and programs that are already taking place.
We are also working with local colleges and universities to create a pipeline of certified early childhood educators for our pre-K expansion efforts. In order to increase quality seats, we will need to increase the accredited pre-K workforce. We’re working with institutions now to attract qualified teachers to the field and support their post-secondary pursuits so we can increase the amount of certified pre-K teachers to meet the classroom needs.
Interview with Susan Gobreski
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background, and your work prior to the Mayor’s Office of Education?
A: I was previously the Executive Director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit education advocacy organization representing parents and community members in support of public education. There, I focused on policy, advocating for resource equity, and strengthening the roles of schools as centers for the health and life of a community. I’ve also worked with other issue advocacy groups, such as Clean Water Action and the League of Conservation Voters. I am also a mother of three children and my husband is a teacher.
Q: What is the Mayor’s vision for community schools in Philadelphia?
A: Our focus is on supporting schools and their work to minimize the challenges children face that prevent them from being ready to learn. Too often students lack the resources necessary to succeed in their educational pursuits. Instead, focusing on the whole child will give the students a chance for academic success. We want to know what vital social and governmental services children and families need, and how we can connect these services to them. When community members and institutions are engaged in young peoples’ education, we can improve the conditions that allow children to reach their full potential.
Q: What will be the role of the Mayor’s Office of Education in developing a community schools strategy for the city?
A: We are working to develop a four-year comprehensive and coordinated plan. This plan will serve as a framework for how a community schools strategy can happen. We want this framework to guide a consistent process for the development of a community school, but still take into consideration that each school has its own unique set of priorities. We also understand that a lot of schools and community partners are already engaged in similar work to a community school strategy, so we won’t be starting at zero. Instead, we will be taking what is already happening and bringing it up to a whole new level. We also see ourselves at the Mayor’s Office playing the role of matchmaker, identifying partners and opportunities, and leveraging resources to make schools more accessible for the community. Over the next two months we are gathering public input and engaging the community in an effort to form an approach that works from the bottom-up, instead of the top-down.
Q: What do you see is the role of partnerships in community schools, particularly institutions of higher education?
A: Philadelphia is a great city with a large and diverse array of resources spread out throughout many parts of the city, including many great institutions of higher education. This presents us with a real opportunity to engage in place-based strategies that improve the health of a neighborhood. We can tap into a lot of resources all at once and build on existing connections that institutions have already made to funnel resources into communities. Our colleges and universities, and many other institutions in Philadelphia, can partner with schools to support a variety of projects including tutoring programs, medical and dental screenings, counseling/mentoring programs, and other public health projects. The relationships can also be mutually beneficial, achieving economic development for an institution’s surrounding neighborhood and providing college students with real life experiences.
Q: How do community schools fit into Mayor Kenney’s overall vision for the city?
A: I am excited to work with a mayor whose agenda is neighborhood oriented. He is focused on getting resources directly to communities that will improve quality of life, such as investing in neighborhood parks and recreations centers. Mayor Kenney sees schools as opportunities for both individuals and institutions to get involved in the life of their community. The Mayor’s office wants to play a role in providing the best educational experience for Philadelphia in every zip code. We in the administration maintain the core belief that strengthening schools will help strengthen neighborhoods across the city.
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