As many Philadelphia schools are set to open with only bare-bones resources in the fall, Penn is stepping up its involvement in one neighborhood elementary school.
The Henry C. Lea School, located at 47th and Locust streets, will receive increased resources from the University as part of an extended partnership.
“The University has decided to expand this investment and to make this a sustainable investment as well,” said Graduate School of Education professor Caroline Watts, who was recently appointed director of the Lea School University Partnership. She will be responsible for coordinating programs, such as teacher seminars and student tutoring projects, between Lea and Penn.
“My now full-time role is to be working within the University and the community to build the resources that enable the Lea principal, the Lea faculty and the Lea community to achieve the vision of the school they want to achieve,” Watts said.
While the framework has been set in place for expanded programming, Watts said she is still in the planning stages of what specific changes the partnership will see. Lea is in a transition period — it will be integrating students from the recently closed Wilson Elementary School. Wilson’s principal, 2012 GSE graduate Sonya Harrison, will also take the helm as Lea’s new principal.
“We have to have a core foundation on the ground in September, and I think that’s really been what we’re focusing on,” Watts added.
Harrison, who was not available for comment, is in the process of acquainting herself with the school over the summer and is meeting with Watts about once a week. The transition is complicated by the fact that the Philadelphia School District passed a “doomsday budget” last month that will leave schools without new books, pens and paper and without personnel like counselors and librarians.
“In a certain way, some of our discussions are ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’ discussions,” Watts said.
In contrast to the way in which the University supports the Penn Alexander School — Penn provides $1,300 for each student at Penn Alexander — Lea will not receive direct monetary assistance, Watts said. The partnership is instead aimed at matching Penn’s nonmonetary resources, such as volunteers and teacher workshops, with parts of the Lea community that can benefit from them.
Penn already provides some support to Lea, with groups like Community School Student Partnerships volunteering at the school.
2013 College graduate Jessica Anderson, who was CSSP’s assistant director and its site coordinator for Lea, said that about 80 students volunteered at the school last school year. The program includes tutoring as well as after-school activities like basketball and music.
“As a person who worked at Lea, I’m excited to hear Penn is expanding its partnership — especially if there are going to be more students,” Anderson said. She added that Penn can help provide individualized attention to students that they might not otherwise get.
But with heavier involvement comes the risk of driving people out. As the quality of education provided at Penn Alexander increased, so did home prices. A Daily Pennsylvanian analysis found that home prices in the Penn Alexander catchment zone will rise an average of 268 percent between fiscal year 2013 and fiscal year 2014, partly due to the fact that some homes’ value hadn’t been reassessed since before Penn Alexander was built.
Lea is also demographically very different from Penn Alexander — 81 percent of students at Lea were black in the 2012-13 school year, according to the Philadelphia School District, compared to just 27.5 percent at Penn Alexander, which itself has seen a 10 percent decrease in the number of black students enrolled since 2010.
Watts emphasized that Penn must be sensitive in its involvement with Lea.
“We’re working within the context of Penn Alexander, but we’re really trying also to look at Lea as Lea and not create it [as Penn created Penn Alexander],” Watts said. “It’s an existing community, it’s an existing building, it’s an existing faculty, it’s an existing set of students.”
Both Watts and Anderson are optimistic about the results the partnership will bring.
“The Penn impact is really good for the students,” Anderson said. “Anytime kids get extra attention, I think it makes an impact.”