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Community school models in full effect at Universal

Original Article: The Philadelphia Tribune

As local school buildings are shuttered, as charter-school growth continues, and as statewide funding problems persist, a groundswell of interest in “community schools” has followed suit.

Defined as “both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources,” according to, the model offers an “integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.”
Penny Nixon, senior executive president of education/chief academic officer for Universal Companies, the city’s largest Black-owned school management firm, said she believes community schools is the best model for urban areas marked by high poverty and an asset during a slow economy.

And while Mayor Jim Kenney has publicly vowed to open 25 community schools in Philadelphia, Nixon noted, “It’s been a part of the Universal Charter School organization since its inception. It’s not new to us.”

Music mogul Kenneth Gamble, who co-founded Philadelphia International Records with Leon Huff in 1971, formed Universal Companies in the 1990s. He returned home to his native Philadelphia with the intent of improving the quality of life for families through affordable housing, social services and finally, independently run charter schools. It serves more than 4,500 students. All eight charter schools carry the Universal name.

Universal Alcorn Elementary Charter School and Universal Alcorn Middle Years Charter School are run in separate buildings at 3200 Dickinson St., in South Philadelphia. Not too far away, Universal Audenried Charter High School, 3301 Tasker St., shuttles students on one of two academic tracks, based on their career interests.

Nixon said that following the community school model helped its charter schools address learning barriers for students and served as a resource for the surrounding neighborhood.

“You can’t turn a blind eye to those barriers. Our narrative has always been around this idea of the whole child and how we support the whole child, so they succeed academically,” she said.

Community schools are growing in popularity especially in Philadelphia as significant losses of school funding have forced budget cuts that have forced school closures and left many other public schools, with minimal to no academic courses, extra-curricular activities or electives such as art and music instruction.
“Schools serve as a hub, and schools are a liaison between families and other community based services,” said spokesperson Devon Allen, making a reference to one of the principles of the community school model.

But they’re also growing in popularity nationally. The education publication, “Bright,” reported that last December, Newark’s mayor Ras Baraka announced a plan to increase community schools there due to a tentative commitment of $12.5 million from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the organization that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg created to manage $100 million he donated to the city in 2010 to reform its school system.

The magazine noted that community schools historian John Rogers, of UCLA, traces the community schools model back to the turn of the 20th century, with an early example being Jame Addam’s Hull House in 1890s Chicago.

According to the Coalition of Community Schools, the community school model works off the idea of improving student learning, strengthening families and making healthier communities by customizing academic programs, health and social services, youth and community development. Also, programs may vary based on the school and its individual needs. Community schools are often open from morning to night, and on weekends.

“We’re trying very hard to bring as many of those options as possible since the school is seen as a community hub,” said Erica Washington, who works on parent and family engagement initiatives in Universal charter schools.
Kenney has extolled the community school model, stressing it would provide “wraparound services” that would help prepare more students for success.

Universal Companies opened health clinics in its charter schools, and it came at a time when the city’s public school system scaled back student health services in response to a budget crisis. Many public schools run without the benefit of a full-time nurse on duty.

“We recognize many of our scholars have issues around asthma and other physical health issues,” Nixon said. “If we are able to address a lot of the physical issues on the school site, it will reduce absenteeism.”

School officials have reported an improvement in school attendance while supporting one of the company’s main objectives. The on-site health center serves students and their families.

“We want every student in school every day and on time,” Eve Lewis, vice president of corporate partnerships and marketing, said. “Universal serves a population of scholars who really come to our schools with many special needs, academic challenges. We have to address many of those barriers in order for them to be successful academically.”

In January, the mayor released a statement announcing Susan Gobreski, a longtime public school advocate who served as executive director of the non-profit, Education Voters Pennsylvania.

“Her insightful policy ideas and ability to bring diverse stakeholders together around common goals is exactly what we need to make community schools successful,” Kenney said in the statement.

Universal’s elementary school pupils are eligible for a health and fitness programs in South Philadelphia. The company maintains a community garden at 16th and Christian streets, features character building and social etiquette programs for its middle school pupils, and has organized a “Kids in the Kitchen” nutrition education program for K-8 pupils, in conjunction with the Junior League of Philadelphia.

For young boys, there’s the “Boys To Men” program, and for girls there’s “Pearls of Wisdom,” which promotes self-esteem and teaches leadership and life skills in an out-of-school setting. And the annual Wellness Breakfast for Men returns this Sunday.

A wide range of services offered to the community at-large include adult education program for young adults without a high school diploma, or the equivalent. Young adults are shown options such as a two-year degree program or training at a career and technical institute. There’s assistance for resume writing, job searches and computers with Internet access, too.
“Partnerships are important in the community school model,” Washington said.

Universal Companies said the resources and support provided under the community school model need steady funding. Officials have found success in turning to partnerships with community agencies and businesses.

Universal Charter Schools follows up on high school graduates, checking progress toward higher education, and includes asking about their educational needs and referring them to additional support, said Washington, who runs Universal schools’ Office of Community, Culture, Climate and Safety.

The company plans to replicate the success experienced at Audenried Charter High School in connecting young adults without a high school diploma to resources. Plans are under way to launch re-engagement initiatives at Universal Creighton Charter School and Universal Daroff Charter School in West Philadelphia.

Says Nixon, “It’s helpful that we have infrastructure already.”


Posted: March 13th, 2016