While Penn’s relationship with the West Philadelphia community has been tumultuous in the past, last night a group of community leaders and educators discussed Penn’s recent focus on interacting positively with its neighbor.

The audience of community members, who filled a little over half the chairs set up in the Arthur Ross Gallery, listened as the panel recounted Penn’s historical interactions with West Philadelphia, as well as the University’s current programs for community involvement.

Ira Harkavy, associate vice president of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, moderated the discussion on what he said was “the single most important issue that the University is focusing on” — helping to develop neighboring West Philadelphia.

West Philadelphia has come a long way since the 1990s, when crime was on a major upspring, said panelist and member of the Spruce Hill Community Trust Board of Directors Barry Grossbach.

Penn faculty and students, as well as West Philadelphia community members, have many more opportunities today to help ameliorate their neighborhoods, he added, citing the recent success of tutoring endeavors in the community and the Penn Alexander Elementary School.

According to Grossbach, these outreach programs have been so successful that outside organizations have started to follow Penn’s footsteps. For instance, the Teacher’s College of Columbia University wants to create a program similar to that of Alexander Elementary School.

“I’ve seen the change,” Leslie Rogers, a Penn doctoral candidate, said. As a Penn undergraduate and graduate student, she said, she felt that West Philadelphia community members were very skeptical of her intentions when she went to volunteer and later teach there. Now, Penn faculty and students are more warmly welcomed, she said.

Rogers said Penn undergraduates getting involved in West Philadelphia is a key to community-building.

Thanks to an array of recently established programs, these students now “get to actually problem-solve in the community,” she said.

Still, attendee Glenwood Charles, a Penn graduate who now oversees the Netter Center’s tutoring program and reading initiative, argued that there is still more to be done.

“Get more involved,” he told students. “There are a lot of opportunities.”

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