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New initiative, Penn Futures Project, unites three deans’ aims in serving the children and families of West Philadelphia.

Credit: Stuart Goldenberg , Stuart Goldenberg

For the first time ever, three schools at Penn are coming together to serve children and families in Philadelphia.

The new initiative, called the Penn Futures Project, actually consists of three specific initiatives, combining the efforts of the School of Nursing, the Graduate School of Education and the School of Social Policy & Practice. While one develops an alliance with Kensington Sciences Academy, a health science public school located in an impoverished area of Philadelphia, another focuses on better serving LGBTQ youth, specifically transgender youth of color, and the final project works with data-based decision making to help Philadelphia’s local government address issues of poverty.

Penn President Amy Gutmann, who was involved with the initial brainstorming for the project, said Penn’s position as an “anchor institution in Philadelphia” makes these kinds of projects important.

“We believe in using our knowledge to make a difference in the world,” she said. “The Penn Futures Project is doing just that.”

Dean of the Graduate School of Education Pam Grossman is one of the deans who spearheaded the project, along with Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice John Jackson and Dean of the Nursing School Antonia Villarruel.

“When you think about the needs for children and education, these are critical schools for having a broader impact on outcomes,” Grossman said.

She said when she initially came to Penn the three deans got together and realized they shared a commitment to urban youth, and the Penn Futures Project developed from there.

“I think part of what we’re trying to do through Penn Futures is to develop a collaboration, and really try to work with communities,” Grossman said. “It’s not Penn coming in trying to do something to them; we’re trying to work together.”

The Graduate School of Education was already placing student teachers at Kensington Science Academy even before the Penn Futures Project existed, but the project expanded Penn’s involvement.

Bob Nelson, a guidance counselor at Kensington, said the partnership works to “address the whole need of our students. Because they come from such a poor underserved neighborhood, they have a lot of challenges.”

The Graduate School of Education has placed a doctorate student in clinical psychology at Kensington who helps with addiction, behavioral and emotional health counseling. Penn has also conducted training sessions for staff, and a number of interns work at the school in a variety of roles, from helping with specific aspects of the health technology curriculum to working in a social worker role.

Penn has also worked to develop a “grab and go” breakfast for students at Kensington.

Nelson said “a typical breakfast for our students, if they ate at all” could be a can of soda and a doughnut. With Penn’s help in launching a breakfast at school, Nelson said the students now have access to “attractive, nutritious, tasty food sitting there and they grab and go on their way to class.”

He said he thinks the changes will be longstanding.

“They want to be sure that whatever time they spend here isn’t a bandaid — it corrects, it improves, it raises the standard,” Nelson said. “This is a permanent change for our school. We’re now working on drawing up specific strategies so we can really embed all these changes in the long term.”

Clarification: The headline of this article has been changed to reflect that the projects discussed are not restricted to West Philadelphia.

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