by Karel Kilimnik
The District Partnerships and Community Engagement Community held its second meeting on Thursday March 21 at the Lucien Blackwell Recreation Center in West Philadelphia. All Board members were present, as were four members of the newly-created Board of Education Parent & Community Advisory Council. City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell welcomed everyone and said how glad she was to have local control of the District reinstated. Co-chairs Julia Danzy and Mallory Fix Lopez took turns introducing the program.
Chief of Student Support Services Karyn Lynch provided an overview of the Family And Community Engagement Office (FACE) describing their role in providing professional development for parents and staff, help for family members with various concerns they have, assisting teen parents in getting an education, and helping the Bi-Lingual Counseling Assistants (BCAs) translate and interpret in a range of languages. Approximately 60 people attended. Instead of having District staff make presentations, the format consisted of small groups discussing the three questions and issues below. Board members facilitated the discussion at each table “to gather feedback and develop strategies for improving engagement”.
- What are some ways that school communities can ensure their school is a welcoming environment for all families and stakeholders?
- What meaningful and ongoing opportunities can we create in schools to collect input and feedback from parents/caregivers or community members?
- What ideas do you suggest to improve our ability to help parents/caregivers better navigate District resources that are available to help their child succeed?
My small group, led by Board member Angela McIver, included two FACE staff, community members and parents from West Philly. People were engaged with the discussion questions and the conversation brought a number of comments. One comment defined the evening: “ you have to speak the language of the disengaged”. One theme that echoed throughout the meeting was the trauma many students live with in their lives and the failure of the District to address that. Participants acknowledged disengagement is due to a myriad of factors such as parents working multiple low-wage jobs, lack of after-school programs for students, parents feeling shut out and unwelcome at their child’s school, and the ever-present problem of unresolved bullying incidents.
Our group was concerned about the daily trauma that our communities face and children absorb and bring to school. Teachers were lauded for doing a “phenomenal” job of trying to deal with this overwhelming issue but need ongoing support. One person noted that we talk about soldiers and the trauma they have experienced but our children experience similar things and their needs have to be addressed as well. Many children come to school hungry or experiencing abuse, and schools have to find a way to deal with these issues. Suggestions included aromatherapy, yoga and meditation, learning how to de-escalate situations, having a washing machine and dryer at school to clean uniforms, and playing calming music during lunch. Other ideas and issues included:
- Use social media to raise events for families
- Have buildings available for community use after school hours such as a Saturday basketball camp and reading classes with qualified volunteers, or providing space for community organizations to meet (someone raised the issue that this could be a way of generating income for the District and someone else noted that in neighboring counties there is no charge). A participant emphasized the urgent need for a safe space to hold activities.
- Improving water quality
- Deal with bullying
- Provide Safe Corridors Program (I raised the issue that when schools are shuttered students have to travel out of their neighborhood to their new school presenting many unaddressed challenges.)
- Schools need to connect to faith-based communities to help keep corridors safe
- Partner with law enforcement to establish Neighborhood Watch
- Add more crossing guards
- Staff stationed in lobby to greet visitors should be welcoming.
During the debrief delivered by Board members these issues were also raised:
- Parents need to feel appreciated and to have a working relationship with their child’s school
- There needs to be a family-oriented environment
- Schools need to be clean, in good repair, and colorful as another way of inviting and welcoming people
- Have parents able to interact more in the school
- Staff at the door should welcome people in and introduce themselves
- Recognize model schools that already exist and team them up with struggling schools
- School staff including the principal, teachers, and other support staff need training on how to welcome people into the school
Many ideas and concerns were presented. We recognize that the Board remains on a learning curve. They have established four committees (Finance & Facilities; Student Achievement & Support; Policy and District Partnerships & Community Engagement) to engage with stakeholders outside of their monthly Action Meetings. This discourse is important but the litmus test is seeing what actions will be taken based on the feedback they have received. Listening is essential but actions make changes.