VISTAs in Education

Posted on November 10, 2012

By Kate Boccella-Perras, PHENND VISTA and School-Community Partnership Program Coordinator

Incognito to the public are hundreds of young, highly qualified, professional employees who are working full-time to create idealistic programs with the aim of alleviating poverty, but are they getting paid a “full-time” salary? Not so much. This is the life of an Americorps* VISTA, a Volunteer in Service to America, a member of a national service program through which they dedicate a year of full-time service to a nonprofit organization or government agency designing initiatives to combat poverty and strengthen communities…

These VISTA “volunteers” receive a bi-weekly living stipend, an education award, healthcare, and potentially a SEPTA pass or rent depending on the host organization. The compensation structure for VISTAs is not designed to be sustainable for either the organization or the VISTA. The goal of the VISTA program is to allow participants to gain skills and engage in meaningful work they are passionate about and for organizations to obtain the infrastructure to support the program they designed after the VISTA term is over.

Some have called the VISTA program the “domestic Peace Corps,” since both programs were designed by President John F. Kennedy and strive to help impoverished individuals and their communities. All across America, VISTA members work in fields such as: food justice, community development, financial literacy, physical and mental health, environmental awareness, and much more. In Philadelphia, VISTAs who are specifically in the field of education have started to collaborate and share their unique projects that strive to make theoretical ideas a sustainable reality through creating sustainable project models that often include establishing numerous partnerships.

The organizations that host VISTAs could be universities, K-12 schools, non-profits or NGOs. Organizations apply through AmeriCorps and are asked to develop a project outline that the volunteer will work on for the year. These projects vary greatly across Philadelphia. The VISTAs in education fields work extremely hard to help improve the quality of programming at their organizations and the status of education in Philadelphia overall. A few of these projects in education are highlighted to share with the public the great work VISTA members are accomplishing through capacity building.

Amanda Cameron is the Development Coordinator VISTA at the Urban Technology Project (UTP), which is part of Communities in Schools of Philadelphia. Currently, the Urban Technology Project has AmeriCorps members in 19 schools providing technical support and improving I.T. knowledge so that they can seek further employment. These members work with youth and adults to increase their computer literacy and internet safety. Cameron

supports these VISTAs by making sure they are supported both financially and through professional development opportunities and exposure through establishing well attended events and public relations. She chose this project because she wanted to help young people in Philadelphia schools  grow professionally through I.T. training and soft skills such as networking and gaining professional exposure. According to Cameron, building capacity by making the program more reputable and acquiring better funding allows for more clients to benefit, and helps close the digital divide in Philadelphia.

At a growing, grassroots nonprofit organization called the University Community Collaborative at Temple University, you will find Akilah Abdul-Rahman, the College Access Coordinator VISTA. Rahman coordinates a leadership partnership at Mastery Gratz and Pickett high schools in Philadelphia. She provides leadership training and college-related opportunities to support the post-secondary success of Mastery students. Rahman is passionate about Philadelphia youth obtaining college access and she feels that the University Community Collaborative has a unique approach to working with youth. The organization’s central theory for change is a respect for youth voice. Rahman feels that personal impact for a field like education is difficult to measure because it is such a collective process, but capacity building serves its purpose, “sustained, systematic work is necessary to really bring social justice to our world…building capacity in programs is a sustainable way to ensure that organizations can continue to do the work that serves their communities”.

Megan Trasport at Philadelphia University’s Mentoring Program working diligently as a Pennsylvania Campus Compact VISTA. So far Trasport has 60 volunteers signed up as tutors and mentors at six different Philadelphia elementary and middle schools. She chose this VISTA position because she is passionate about working in education and decided this would be a great way to enter the field. Her volunteers and site supervisors are constantly saying great things about the benefits of the mentoring program for students, and Trasport feels that so far she is making a great impact.

At New Foundations Charter School located in northeast Philadelphia a team of four VISTAs work on projects that range from a recycling program, college and career preparation, grant writing, nutrition education, farmers markets, new playgrounds, and after school programs. These great strides are being taken by Ryan Greene, Zoe Plantevin, Sadia Hussain, and Tony Coleman. Greene decided to become a VISTA at New Foundations because he wholeheartedly agrees with the school’s mission of a holistic education in nutrition, academics, physical activity, and college prep. Students are constantly telling him about their delicious and healthy lunches or how much fun they have on the new playground at New Foundations.

Here at the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development, Eden Kainer and Kate Boccella-Perras are creating a strategic school-community partnership VISTA program for selected schools next year. The project was drafted by many members of the Phennd network and led by Hilary Kane and Liz Shriver. The program strives to start creating community schools, where higher education, nonprofits, parent groups, faith-based organizations, and administration are all communicating and working together. The collaboration will hopefully create the best environment for students to receive the services they need to get an effective education, and successfully move on to post-secondary plans. Principals will start applying for this program on November 15, 2012 and the applications will be due on January 15th, 2013.

VISTAs have only one year to make an impact in their field through various projects and initiatives. There aren’t many resources and a VISTA in education quickly learns there is a lot of need. These positions consist of strategic planning, networking, and an unwavering commitment to see the project completed for progress to be made in one year. These individuals are working relentlessly, without getting paid or receiving much recognition, to see change come about in Philadelphia’s education system. VISTAs only have one year, but they will be replaced by a new generation of VISTAs that will hopefully continue where their project stopped. If funding continues, this is a necessary government program to see small, yet impactful, change.

Kate Boccella Perras and Eden Kainer have designed bi-monthly VISTAs in Education Networking and Professional Development nights hosted at PHENND. If you are interested in becoming a VISTA in the future this is a great opportunity to learn from those who are part of the program. For current VISTAs this is a chance to learn from each other and create partnerships between host organizations.

Contact Kate Boccella-Perras: Katebp89@phennd.org, 215-573-2379 for more information.


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