Reflecting on Two Years of Service as a PHENND Community Partnerships VISTA

Posted by on July 13, 2015 K-16 Newsletter

By Margaret McLaughlin

For the past two years, I have had the privilege to work with PHENND’s Community Partnerships Initiative as a VISTA and VISTA Leader. Working in collaboration with the School District of Philadelphia, our VISTA project helps to build awareness and capacity for schools’ and the District’s strategic partners in order to better support students, schools, and communities. I am lucky enough to have served last year with Principal James Williams and team at Kensington Health Sciences Academy and this year in PHENND’s offices, assisting our school- and District-based VISTAs with programmatic support and guidance. Under the leadership of Hillary Kane, Liz Shriver, and Eden Kainer, this VISTA project has grown from just five schools and one District office in its first year, to 16 and three, respectively, going into its third. We have come a long way since the beginning, and I credit it all to the amount of trust that we have been able to foster, both within school communities, but also in the School District as a whole.

Having studied at Temple, I had an awareness of the issues facing Philadelphia’s education system, but this project gave me the opportunity to find a way to contribute to a school and the larger education community. In 2013, Principal Williams had a seemingly impossible job when his budget was cut to a level many referred to as a ‘doomsday’ scenario. He was not able to bring back his assistant principal or either of his two guidance counselors in their former capacities. He lost teachers, teachers’ aides, and other special programs. But here I come: a 23-year-old with only a year of work under her belt and a strange charge of working with ‘community partners.’ Despite the challenges, Mr. Williams had a vision for his school, I was ready to work hard to earn my VISTA stipend, and he trusted me to do what needed to get done.

The fact that Mr. Williams had faith in me to support his school’s vision is unendingly humbling, even to this day. The year was difficult, but it truly felt like everyone in the school banded together to push through, despite the tribulations the District was facing. I want to publicly thank you, Principal Williams, for your guidance and mentorship throughout that year. You taught me how to lead in the face of adversity. As I finished the school year, I transitioned from the VISTA at Kensington Health Sciences to the VISTA Leader of the project as a whole. Moving from a school to an office felt a little like dropping off the face of the earth: I was no longer ‘in it,’ but rather behind the scenes.

As I helped to prepare materials for the new cohort, I remembered my trainings from a year prior, and I was struck by the realization that ‘Trust’ was something integral to our work. Trust between the schools and their partners – whether that be a large university or a few parent volunteers -, between the school and its students, and even between PHENND VISTAs as a cohort — this all was elemental to our project, its mission, and its goals.  Our 2014-15 VISTAs – including me – are preparing to leave now, but I am so proud of how everyone grew into their roles as the trust-builder, the facilitator, the coordinator of relationships within their schools and offices. I am grateful to have supported them throughout their years of service and I hope that they have also learned how important strengthening relationships is to any work.

The School District continues to face adversity in the form of underfunding. To combat continual underfunding, we need to place our full confidence and support in the students, families and communities of the District. With the fear of another budget shortfall, I hope that those of you who work with Philly’s schools look to each other and ask yourselves what you can do – together – to help. In my two years with PHENND, I’ve grown and learned more than I ever could have imagined. None of the work could have happened, though, if it wasn’t for the trust that Kensington Health Sciences and PHENND placed in me.

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