West Philly Community Driving New Vision of Local K-8 School, With Penn Acting as a Facilitator of Change

February 17, 2014 - This past fall, the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Government and Community Affairs announced that Penn would deepen and substantially change its partnership with West Philly’s Henry C. Lea School. Efforts will be driven by the West Philadelphia community to create a school that reflects the life and culture of the area, with Penn working to help enact the community’s ideas. Last week, the first glimpses of a new vision for Lea could be seen in a report issued jointly by Lea and the Penn GSE Project for Civic Engagement (PPCE).

“As the new principal of Lea, I have been pleased to meet so many families and members of the community who care so much about our school,” said Dr. Sonya Harrison, Penn GSE alumna ('12) and Lea School Principal. “Making Lea a quality model for diverse learners will happen through the ongoing investment of all of our partners. Penn has been a tremendous partner, and I look forward to building upon that foundation.” 

 The new vision of a school-university relationship began last fall when, as the newly-appointed principal, Harrison invited the West Philly community – not just parents, but community organizations, local businesses and other stakeholders – to join the discussions about Lea’s future. Facilitated by PPCE, the discussions gathered community voices to generate ideas for revitalizing the school.

More than 75 attendees from the internationally diverse West Philly neighborhood were given an opportunity to come together. Based on feedback, Harrison and the School District of Philadelphia will begin to conceptualize and implement a vigorous new Lea, located at 4700 Locust St., with Penn on board to assist. Penn GSE’s Dr. Caroline Watts, who has over 20 years of experience in school and community work, has been appointed as the main point of contact at Penn, and is working full-time to coordinate efforts across the entire university and the city for Lea.

“Penn is excited to help re-imagine a community-university partnership,” said Watts. “The participation from West Philadelphia has been enthusiastic. This level of community engagement is essential to the success of the model we are seeking to establish here – where the community helps to chart a course for the school.”

 After going through all of the feedback gathered in the forums, the Penn GSE facilitators delivered recommendations for ways to expand and deepen the engagement of parents, families and interested community members in Lea School, with the overall goal of improving student educational experiences and outcomes, such as:

  • Strengthen, improve and expand communication with parents, families and community members.
  • Gather community support for materials (books, art supplies, school supplies, etc.)
  • Restore arts and culture to a place of distinction for Lea School.

It was recommended that Principal Harrison build on existing school and community structures (such as the Home and School Association and the education committees of neighborhood community associations) and create additional ways (such as ad hoc committees) to engage the community in advancing the work of the forums. Harrison plans to make community outreach discussions an ongoing part of her leadership.

Penn began its relationship with the Lea School in the 1960s, and as recently as last year had 23 different school-day and after-school programs there, ranging from programs through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, to the student-run Penn Science Through the Ages science teaching effort and Penn GSE’s student teacher placements. 

This year, in addition to the addition of Harrison as principal, Lea has taken on 200 additional students – and now has a student population close to 600. This includes a newly-added fourth kindergarten class, as well as the matriculation of a number of students from Harrison’s former, and recently closed, Wilson school.