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Penn hosted about 250 educators, Penn faculty, students and other professionals on Saturday for its fourth annual L.E.A.R.N. conference to discuss how to best address student needs.

Credit: Connie Kang

While teachers and administrators often focus on student's academic needs, a conference this weekend focused more on how to address students' needs as people.

The campus group L.E.A.R.N., the Leaders in Education Advocacy & Reform Network, led the conference. Penn hosted about 250 educators, Penn faculty, students and other professionals on Saturday at a conference at the Law School with the theme “Recharging Schools: Addressing the Holistic Needs of Children.” Conference Co-Director and Penn Law student Samantha Miller said she and Co-Director and Fels student Maria Wahlstrom chose the theme based on their experiences as teachers prior to coming to Penn.

“We couldn’t fully serve our students because we couldn’t meet all of their needs,” Miller said. Discussions at the conference tried to bring those needs into conversation ranging from student health and wellness to the relationships between local communities and schools.

Miller described L.E.A.R.N. as an “interdisciplinary graduate organization” because the group draws students from various backgrounds and departments at Penn.

While the conference is one of their biggest yearly events, L.E.A.R.N organizes other events and outreach like bringing in the Superintendent of the Camden City School District Paymon Rouhanifard last fall. They also do pro-bono work with the Public Interest Law Center and the School Discipline Advocacy Project, a project where Penn and Temple Law students represent K-12 students in the disciplinary process in the district.

Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia William Hite was one of the keynote speakers at the fourth annual conference where he related the conference theme to the situation in Philadelphia.

“In my brief experience here in Philadelphia, it’s shown me both the price and peril of not approaching learning from a holistic point of view,” he said.

He shared his experience with his student advisory board and that he values their opinions and actually takes their advice. The board was formed following protests and walk-outs by students in response to the so-called “doomsday” budget for public schools in 2013 that cut out art, music and athletics among other things.

Recently-appointed Dean of the Graduate School of Education Pam Grossman spoke about her decision to come to Philadelphia as a place to be if one cares about urban education, she said, and that the challenges facing youth go well beyond a single discipline.

“That’s why this conference is so important,” Grossman said. “It’s going to take that cross-professional collaboration and much more interdisciplinary holistic view to solve the kinds of challenges that we are facing.”

Hite talked about the more holistic approach that the district has taken toward disciplining students. He added that alternate approaches make schools safer.

“It speaks to that if in fact we are thinking about the whole child and thinking about the types of things they need to be successful,” he said, which means schooling is "more than just reading, writing and mathematics, but also how [students] are feeling that day, who cares about them and who’s having great expectations for them."

Through the fundraising efforts and conference sponsors, the event was free to all Penn students. “Ultimately we’re on campus to serve Penn students and want to give them every opportunity to attend if they’d like to,” Miller said.

Other keynote speakers included University of Illinois education professor William Ayers, Scientific Director or the Imagination Institute at Penn Scott Barry Kaufman and President of the Institute for Educational Leadership Martin Blank. Former School Reform Commission member and interim Dean of the Law School Wendell Pritchett moderated the morning panel.

Commentary from Saturday can be found at #LEARN2015 on Twitter. 

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