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Academically based community service courses have been growing in number since they started in 1985. We asked students what they thought of the classes. RELATED: The ABC’s of Penn’s ABCS classes

Credit: Alexandra Fleischman

While some students are registering for classes that fulfill requirements, others seek a different kind of fulfillment.

For these students, most of their studies take place in the greater Philadelphia community in academically based community service courses.

Though the first ABCS class began in 1985, the program continues to receive grants and expands year after year. The program has grown from four courses, three faculty members and 100 students to what it was last academic year — over 60 courses, 50 faculty members and nearly 1,600 students.

This semester, there were 21 undergraduate and nine graduate ABCS classes offered, three of which were new.

Program expansion

ABCS classes are hosted through the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. The founding of the center — formerly known as the Center for Community Partnerships — in 1992 has contributed to the program’s growth.

Although the term ABCS was not coined until a few years later, the first community-based course was called “Urban Universities-Community Relationships: Penn and West Philadelphia, Past, Present, and Future, as a Case Study.”

It was taught in 1985 by Penn’s current Associate Vice President and Director of the Netter Center Ira Harkavy, who continues to teach it today. He first co-taught it with former University President Sheldon Hackney and the late History professor Lee Benson.

The University has received nearly 30 grants since 2006 to develop ABCS courses and continues to receive grants to launch new classes.

Most recently, Penn’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine is sponsoring a new course called “Teaching Stem Cells.” Coordinator of life-science partnerships at the Netter Center Jamie Shuda will teach the course next fall.

Harkavy explained that although ABCS courses focus on service, “each course is different. They vary in approach based on subject, the faculty member’s research interests and style of teaching.”

Lessons learned

Professors design their own syllabi for these classes, sometimes incorporating students’ interests.

Harkavy’s class has a set syllabus for only the first half of the course. The second half is designed based on students’ interests, intellectual questions and their research projects as Harkavy centers his class toward “collaboration and democratic learning.”

“Students should define the purposes of their own learning, and as these purposes become sufficiently defined, they should work with the faculty to help think about how best to reach their goals.”

College freshman Etan Raskas said he chose to enroll in Harkavy’s course because he wanted “to gain a better appreciation for the impact universities can have on surrounding communities.”

“I would encourage other freshmen to pursue academic opportunities that center on community engagement and that tackle real-life problems because these courses may significantly influence the way you choose to approach your remaining time at Penn.”

Raskas believes it is crucial for students to learn the historic relationship between Penn and West Philadelphia and to be aware of the tensions that existed “as we continue to work to enhance this important connection.”

Graduate School of Education professor John Fantuzzo will continue teaching an ABCS course in the fall called “Tutoring in Urban Public Elementary Schools: A Child Development Perspective.” He brings students to tutor at Henry C. Lea Elementary.

Fantuzzo said he decided to create an ABCS course that would expose students to “an urban public school context different from many of the private schools or suburban public schools that Penn students may come from.”

“I wanted them to realize that they are entering into a truly bidirectional learning experience and to be prepared to learn from young children and teachers.”

Real-world ripples

In addition to Penn students, according to Fantuzzo, these courses also benefit the Greater Philadelphia community in a number of ways.

Associate Director of the Netter Center Cory Bowman said that in 1994, the ABCS program began offering an environmental studies class, ENVS 404, through the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies. The class is currently taught by Earth and Environmental Science lecturer Rich Pepino and teaching assistant Martha Powers.

Faculty and students worked together to research the causes and levels of incidence of blood lead levels in Philadelphia. They examined prevention techniques and worked with Shaw Middle School.

Nearly six years after the ABCS course began work on this initiative, the zip code area around Shaw saw the most marked decrease in blood lead levels, ABCS coordinator Anne Schweiger said.

“We have reason to believe that student efforts in this course had a strong correlation with this finding,” she said.

Similarly in 1994, Anthropology professor Frank Johnston taught an ABCS class on nutrition, which he still teaches today. 1997 College graduate and current School of Arts and Sciences graduate student Danny Gerber took the class and went on to found the Agatston Urban Nutritional Initiative that works with 20 schools in Philadelphia. Last Friday, the Netter Center hosted an ABCS summit celebrating the department’s accomplishments and discussing urban nutrition in schools.

College junior and Vice President of Penn Education Society — Penn’s chapter of Students for Education Reform — Meg Zager, said community-based coursework has played a critical role in her time at Penn and inspired her to switch to the Urban Studies major. She is currently enrolled in Fantuzzo’s course.

College junior Cecelela Tomi’s experience with ABCS has also shaped her ambitions. She is more encouraged to fulfill her goals of building an elementary school in Tanzania, her parents’ home country.

College senior Arielle Spellun, who is taking an ABCS course which involves learning American Sign Language and volunteering at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown, said her class is one of her best experiences at Penn.

With the likely upcoming approval of the ASL minor, Spellun predicts higher demand of the class in upcoming years.


Students and faculty involved in ABCS, however, believe it is important to understand the rigor of these courses. “I want students to take my course for the right reasons, ones that reflect their sincere desire to master the academic content and apply it for the welfare of others,” Fantuzzo said.

Wharton and Engineering junior Luben Li, who took a class on teaching public speaking, similarly added that “I’ve taken a lot of classes people perceive as hard but I would say this class required more work on my part than a lot of engineering courses I’ve taken.”

Spellun added the consequences of missing class are different for an ABCS class. “There are many people relying on you to show up.”

Zager agreed, adding that the most common misconception is that these classes are easy when they actually require a large time commitment outside of the classroom.

“These classes force students to step outside of the ‘Penn bubble’ and simultaneously learn from and give back to the community we reside in,” she added.

University Chaplain Charles Howard, who co-teaches an ABCS course with Makuu Director Brian Peterson, added that “ABCS courses are really one of the bright lights of the university.”

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