Penn and Lea School celebrate signing of $4 million commitment

April 11, 2022
Lea School principal Aaron Gerwer speaks from behind podium at celebration event.

Photos: Eric Sucar, University Communications

In a spirited event that packed the auditorium of the Henry C. Lea Elementary School, officials from Lea, the University of Pennsylvania, Penn GSE, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the School District of Philadelphia celebrated the formalization of Penn’s deepened commitment to supporting the West Philadelphia K-8 school.

The $4.1 million agreement — announced in late January — expands on the University of Pennsylvania’s partnership with Lea School, which dates back more than a half-century. It will provide broad support for the school’s key initiatives over the next five years.

“We’re here to celebrate our partnership with Penn and the work we will do together with the students and families of West Philadelphia,” said Lea School principal Aaron Gerwer to an auditorium filled with enthusiastic Lea School students and staff. “This is a special opportunity for our school, our community, and the University to collaborate around a vision for student-centered and community-connected learning that we hope can serve as a model for other schools, communities, and institutions of higher learning.”

In recent years, the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of the President and Penn GSE have provided approximately $300,000 of annual support to Lea — which has gone toward professional development for teachers, support for families, and resources for students. Early this year, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite, Jr., was authorized by the Philadelphia School Board to negotiate a memorandum of agreement building upon that commitment.

For Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman, the event took on special meaning as a perfect example of what brought her to Penn.

Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman speaks at the Lea-Penn celebration event.
Dean Grossman speaks at the celebration event.

“I came here seven years ago in large part because of the chance to lead a school of education that had a long history of working so closely and deeply with Philadelphia public schools,” said Grossman. “I’m excited to work together with all of you — to see all of the things the students, families, and members of the Lea community are able to accomplish.”

Grossman introduced University of Pennsylvania Interim President Wendell E. Pritchett, who himself felt a deep connection to Lea School, as his parents, both schoolteachers in Philadelphia, met at West Philadelphia High School, mere steps from Lea.

“I know firsthand the great things Philadelphia schoolteachers do for their students every day,” said Pritchett.

“I’m going to quote the University of Pennsylvania’s founder, Ben Franklin,” Pritchett added. “He said, ‘Investment in knowledge pays the best interest.’ The best way to spend our time, money, and effort is helping students learn. That’s why we’re all here today. The agreement we’re celebrating is going to help all of us realize our vision for accelerating progress underway at Lea.”

Superintendent Hite — who entered the room to a round of thunderous applause from the Lea School student body — spoke on the significance of the day.

“It is significant for a school like the University of Pennsylvania to partner with a public school in the City of Philadelphia,” he said. “This has been a vision for so many of us for such a long time. A university known across the world is investing in you, the students of Lea. I only ask of you to take advantage of these opportunities.”

The celebration’s final speaker, Jerry T. Jordan — President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — acknowledged at the top of his remarks that he was the only thing standing between the students and a well-deserved spring break.

He promised to keep his remarks brief but spoke from the heart about the importance of investment in the future of students from underserved communities.

“I’m excited Penn has identified the continued need for their long-term investment in Philadelphia, and particularly for their commitment to neighborhood public schools,” Jordan said. “The resources Penn has invested in the Lea community will ensure students who attend this school have access to myriad resources that will help them to thrive.”

“Investment is not a panacea, but it will have an extraordinarily significant impact for the students at Lea today and the students at Lea tomorrow,” he added.

With a memorandum of agreement now signed, Lea will receive support from Penn to pursue its focus on project-based learning as well as other initiatives and programs chosen by the community and Lea School administrators.

For more from Dean Grossman and Principal Gerwer on his collaborative vision for a true community school, check out this Penn GSE News Q&A.