Parents Initiating Higher Ed Partnerships at Lea and Jenks: A Model for Community-School Collaboration

Posted by on December 14, 2012

By Eden Kainer

As a parent of a Philadelphia public school student, I have been involved or acquainted with many different parent groups over the years. While the work is often grueling, the projects these groups initiate and the results they obtain have proved over and again that the mobilization of parents’ voices and skills can be an extremely effective mechanism for bringing about positive change in schools. Universities and colleges who have established programs in schools know that parental buy-in is very often a crucial component for the success of their program and learn the necessity of involving parents from the beginning. Higher education folks who would like to partner with schools should take note that they can gain momentum for initiating a program in a school by utilizing this sometimes overlooked resource…

I would like to highlight in this article two parents who represent this dynamic potential of parents, Gerald Wright from JS Jenks Elementary, and Maurice Jones from Lea Elementary, who are integral players assisting their principals in getting great ideas into motion in their respective schools. They offer several models for ways in which colleges and universities can partner with parent groups to create positive outcomes for public school students and provide important learning opportunities for their own students. Both gentlemen are currently presidents of their Home and School Associations, but both have been involved in a variety of capacities with their children’s schools, working to build visibility in their immediate communities and within the School District.

Gerald Wright offers us a great example of a well-connected parent who thinks globally and acts locally. Wright has been involved in public education advocacy since his oldest child, now a sophomore in high school, was in 4th grade at JS Jenks in Northwest Philadelphia. As a member of Parents United for Public Education, a powerful grassroots parent advocacy group, he has been part of campaigns to reduce class size and joined efforts to ensure the Philadelphia Parking Authority relinquish promised revenues to the School District. He has been a tireless petitioner of the School Reform Commission for transparency in matters of budget and policy as well as an important leader for urging the School District to include parent representation in all levels of decision-making.

At the school level, Wright became president of the JS Jenks Home and Association this year and his main goal has been to increase the base of parent volunteers to support principal requests for people power and thus to strengthen the Home and School as a partner in the kids’ education.  Wright recognizes that outside groups which include higher education partners have often had a difficult time connecting with the School District, and sometimes even principals, and points out that that parent groups can be an important point of contact, not the least for being able to return phone calls but also as a partner in lobbying for the benefits of a particular program as well as often providing the capacity to raise matching funds.

JS Jenks has supported numerous partnerships with local colleges and universities over the years, and Wright would welcome even more. He imagines that universities should continue to send undergraduates to continue the tutoring and mentoring that they already do, but could also add such capacity building activities for the parent groups such as designing newsletters and providing informative and enriching parent programming at their meetings. For example, the Jenks Home and School recently hosted an educator who spoke to parents about helping their children deal with grief and loss, facilitating the parents’ understanding of a child’s perspective. This interest in parent programming could be an opportunity, for example, for psychology graduate students to come present on topics of child development that they may be researching. For more information about the Jenks Home and School Association (click on HAS) and all the great things happening there and ways in which Higher Eds could get involved, please go to  JS Jenks webpage.

Maurice Jones similarly got involved with his school when his child was younger. When he was looking for a good school for his child who was entering first grade, several parents recommended Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia. Although he was very pleased with his child’s teacher, he noticed that the school was missing a number of resources that he felt were important and began volunteering his time and IT skills. His first project, in collaboration with the school’s Technology Teacher Leader, was to secure working computers for the two first grade classes at Lea. How did he do this? Simply by asking Wharton Business School and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism if they had any computers to donate. 80 computers later, and a digital projector to connect to these computers, Jones had forged a fruitful school-university partnership.

Jones continues to actively work on expanding the notion of school-university partnerships. He has been participating in a working group since this summer that includes Lea’s principal Dr. Bell-Chiles, Caroline Watts from Penn’s Graduate School of Education, Sterling Baltimore, the Netter Center site coordinator and Glenn Bryan, the assistant vice president of community relations in the Office of Government and Community Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania.  This group has been meeting since summer with the goal of clearly defining Lea’s needs to see where Penn can bring its resources to bear.

By mobilizing the resources of large universities with the skill sets of parents and teachers and the grassroots power of neighborhood groups such as West Philadelphia Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, the Garden Court Community Association and local churches, Jones is helping to sustain a variety of big projects. Two of the most notable include a greening of Lea’s playground with a projected area accessible to the community when school is not in session and the Glea Club, an afterschool music club launched this October with the help of Dr. Molly McGlone from Penn, in which students are learning to play string instruments on donated instruments, singing in a choir and studying music theory with instruction from volunteer Penn students. This program is directed by Temple instructor, Dominique Perez, who is compensated for her time through the Garden Court Association and a grant through 8th District Senator, Anthony Williams. To learn about other projects at Lea School, please go to this issue of the most recent Lea Newsletter.

Like Wright, Jones recognizes that schools need someone in the building who is empowered to take a great idea and put it into action, and that person may well not be a paid employee. Very often the teachers and principals are at capacity with their day to day activities, and as much as they would like to plan projects that would benefit the students, often do not have the time, especially for those that involve grant-writing or major outreach. To that end, Jones has spent some time speaking with other nearby schools, in particular Comegys and Wilson to share best practices of his parent group to help spread the idea that parents can be very powerful. Not only do parent associations have the ear of their principal and a beat on their parent populations, they can also be connected to local political leadership and the powers that be at the School District. For example, both men have spent time pursuing conversations with new school superintendent, William Hite. You can be sure that their work at their schools will be on his radar.

More in "K-16 Partnerships"

Stay Current in Philly's Higher Education and Nonprofit Sector

We compile a weekly email with local events, resources, national conferences, calls for proposals, grant, volunteer and job opportunities in the higher education and nonprofit sectors.