The West Philadelphia Coalition for Neighborhood Schools (WPCNS): An Interview with Amara Rockar

Posted by on August 31, 2011

The West Philadelphia Coalition for Neighborhood Schools is a network of neighborhood parents and community members that, “Aims to bring our vibrant community and all of its resources into our local neighborhood public schools.” They are working to achieve this goal by bringing in supplementary programs, volunteers and resources in to West Philadelphia schools; starting at Lea elementary. Through providing volunteer opportunities and programming the WPCNS has a secondary goal of having more families from West Philadelphia consider Lea as a kindergarten option for their children. In light of the recent controversies about the cap on enrollment for Penn Alexander, (a public school supported with extra funding and resources by the University of Pennsylvania) I spoke with Amara Rockar, one of the founding members of the WPCNS, about how and why they came together and their goals.

Contact information for WPCNS and more about their project:

Q: How did the WPCNS start?

A: We started as a Google Group email list in June 2010 due to the efforts of the founding members. Each member had various challenges with deciding what the best options for school in Philadelphia were for their children so they decided to address the issue on a larger scale. There are three core founding members. Beth Menasion whose children are at Penn Alexander. She teaches now at the Parent Infant Center and used to teach at Welsh Elementary in Kensington. Beth brought the perspective of having worked in a high-needs school that was successful and served students well. The other founding members are Erin McLeary who lives in the Lea catchment area and Amy D’Antonio, who lives in the Wilson catchment area. Amy had just gone through major hoops to voluntary transfer her son to a Center City elementary school.

With parents putting so much effort into charter applications and voluntary transfers, Beth, Amy and Erin decided to explore if these energies could be directed towards their neighborhood schools instead. There are many schools in West Philadelphia that aren’t being supported by the community to the extent that they could be. Families also don’t know everything that is available at those schools. Often, parents will just go on the School District website for their neighborhood school, look at the test scores, and move on in their search.

Q: How did you approach working with West Philadelphia schools?

A: We looked for a school that would partner with us as a group of parents and community members who don’t have students in the school but who want to help bring in volunteers and program to support all students.

Principals aren’t used to that and some weren’t able to support us. However, Lea’s principal was willing to partner with us and allow us to help plan events, bring in special programs and propose projects; so we started working with her closely. In addition the Lea Home and School Association president, Maurice Jones, has also really embraced our group. In the long term, once the programs and projects we started at Lea Elementary are sustained we’ll expand to other schools.

Q: How have parents reacted to your work that don’t live in West Philadelphia? Are there any groups that are similar that are city-wide?

A: Our group took the lead from a group of parents in South Philly that focused on Jackson Elementary, and they got quite a lot of press. There are many groups like ours around the city. I wouldn’t say that any of them are formed in response to us. But we’re part of a larger movement or trend of parents who are trying to re-think the “common knowledge” that if you can you should move to the suburbs once your children reach kindergarten age.

Parents that are already in the city don’t want to move just to send their child to a different school. They like what the city as a whole has to offer them and their families and they like giving their children the diversity of experiences that the city offers. They want to figure out how they can stay in the city and give their child the best educational opportunities in a public school.

I’ve seen parents disparage even Penn Alexander as not rigorous enough, but parents see the value beyond the test scores and the resources of the school. They want their kids to go to a diverse school.

Q: What makes the WPNS unique?

A: The other groups that are similar in Philadelphia do have other initiatives that they’re implementing at the schools they are involved in, but we’ve seen a really huge response from the West Philadelphia community even beyond the Lea catchment area. I think that having three universities bordering the school that we’re focusing on has allowed us to connect to resources that other schools in different neighborhoods don’t necessarily have. We can leverage those resources. Lea’s catchment is shared by a couple different neighborhood associations as well, which means we have a lot of strong community partners.

Q: What volunteer opportunities are available for WPCNS members?

A: A lot of the volunteer programming didn’t begin until later in the Spring but we did have parents in the Kindergarten classroom. This allowed the parents to see the teaching styles and skills of those teachers.

There have also been paint days for the Visual Arts program at Lea. Over Spring Break, volunteers painted the main office school hallway and this summer volunteers painted the first floor. This contributed to the interior beautification of the school which is one way to show Lea students that their school is cared about. It may even encourage positive behavior from the students to take care of a new space in their school.
With the start of the school year we have a lot of activities we’re excited about like helping out with the Back to School night, a school supplies drive, a classroom library drive and volunteer opportunities in the kindergarten classrooms.

Q: What are some of the biggest issues for parents with the means to send their children somewhere else, in sending their kids to neighborhood schools?

A: Parents want high test scores, but they don’t want to feel like the school is teaching to the test. They want the teachers to have freedom to teach outside of the test. And they don’t want their children to be drilled in skills. Parents also rely heavily on the opinions of others, they often want to know that their friends are sending their children to the same school and are happy with it. For parents, this is such a big choice and they have a lot of criteria, and if they are looking for a reason not to send their children to Lea they could find it as they probably could at any school. What we are trying to do is give them reasons to send their children to Lea.

Q: What is available, or what is the WPCNS trying to provide for Lea that parents wouldn’t see based on the information they can get from the School District website?

A: Lea will have an after-school instrumental strings program starting in January. Which means there will be music and arts at the school. The art teacher is wonderful and also runs an after school Visual Arts program. Lea has volunteers come in to provide free library services and we’ve been able to bring in more local people as volunteer librarians. There’s an existing program called the West Philadelphia Recess Initiative that does socialized recess at Lea and we’re trying to recruit community members to fill in when Penn is on academic calendar break but Lea is still in session. This would all be helpful for parents to know about.

Parents also don’t get to see the real diversity that’s at the school. When parents look at Lea elementary on the School District website they see a large majority African American population, and that doesn’t differentiate between African American students and the children of African immigrants. Lea parents have also said that the district website underreports the other ethnicities at the school and that the school feels much more diverse than the website indicates, especially because the school has a strong English Language Learner program.

Also, the District doesn’t list any “gifted and talented” programs for students above grade level and Lea does have a pull out program for that.  Overall, the website doesn’t reflect the reality of students that are actually there and unfortunately the website is as far as parents get sometimes.

Q: Are there other major barriers to this work that you’ve identified?

A: Being a principal in Philadelphia is a hard job, so taking on all of these proposals and projects and overseeing volunteers from a group like ours can be too much for some. We did approach other principals in the area and got the message that coordinating our involvement was not doable on top of so many other responsibilities. “Community involvement” is a small part of the overall evaluation rubric the district uses to rate schools and principals can definitely feel more pressure to get results in other “short term” categories than to build lasting community partnerships. We are very happy that we’ve found a partner in the principal at Lea.

Q: Do you communicate with the School District?

A: We’ve only been involved at the school level, not the district level. The the Parent Engagement Office knows that we exist, however, their job involving the current parents in the schools is so demanding. There’s not a framework or funding to try to involve prospective parents and with the recent budget cuts and the departments having to do more with less it’s hard to fault them.

Q: How would you use college students to support your work if you could?

A: We are helping to funnel college students to existing programs at Lea elementary, in addition to people from the community. Towards the start of the school year, we’d like to make sure the college students in the area aware of the volunteer opportunities available at the school. Some of the members of WPCNS are current students and graduate students at local universities and some are even administrators of college houses. We are planning to get more students involved that way. As previously stated, we can also try and help to fill in the gaps with community volunteers because of the college academic calendar is so different than the K-12 calendar.

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