The tools for a successful education go beyond the walls of each school building.
Although school districts like Philadelphia’s attempt to create equal learning in the classroom, not all students stand on equal footing once they get home.
Four years ago, the city and School District of Philadelphia implemented a handful of “Community Schools” with the goal of helping students adapt to their environment, while providing the necessary resources to help kids thrive in school. South Philadelphia High School on Broad Street and Southwark Elementary School on 9th Street were chosen among the first wave to participate in the program.
Once the program was implemented in 2016, Janelle Harper transitioned into a community coordinator position at South Philly High School after serving as a mental and behavioral health therapist there prior. She’s been excelling in her role, despite some recent challenges that came with school closings via COVID-19. Harper was tasked with making sure seniors completed all necessary requirements to graduate on time in the spring.
“It’s been a big challenge,” Harper said. “We had to get creative with communication. I started using a Remind Me app so I could contact students whenever they needed to do something and it would remind them by email. And the kids were very good about checking their emails. Even before the pandemic, we had gotten them in the habit of checking emails.”
Some of Harper’s hard work during the 2019-20 school year went for naught, as her best-laid plans surrounding graduation were negated by the pandemic.
“We had started an official student council last year and we were able to partner with one of the churches to have graduation there,” Harper said. “It was going to be free with free parking and lots of other incentives. They were really excited because we planned so much around prom and graduation, and then we had to do everything virtually, which took the zest out of it. It was a shame because I’ve known all these kids since they were in ninth grade.”
Harper said the community involvement is what makes the job so special. She was still able to raise money to create graduation signs for students, caps, gowns and diploma covers.
Citywide, there are 17 community schools, serving nearly 10,000 students, and they receive extra resources via the beverage tax.
According to a report provided by the Office of the City Controller in March, only 2.6 percent ($6.3 million) of the $244.2 million revenue raised by the beverage tax had been used on community schools.
Community schools were an initiative of Mayor Jim Kenney. They intertwine social services and Philadelphia schools in an effort to remove barriers to learning. Each of the 17 schools receives a city-paid coordinator to assess the school and community’s needs and build relationships with the surrounding community.
Liz Hejlek started at Southwark Elementary School less than a year ago, replacing Beth Dougherty. Hejlek hit the ground running and has made an enormous impact bridging the gap between the school and the affluent surrounding community.
“There are certainly hard days and there are also great days where you feel like you made a difference,” Hejlek said. “You make sure that no one falls through the cracks. It’s what makes those success stories reaffirming and help you get out of bed each day. But it comes along with hearing some really hard stories of what people are going through, particularly during this time.”
Hejlek coordinated food and diaper deliveries through her position to help the community. She also helped the school create a partnership with a local produce company that provided free food box deliveries to 30 families in need every week.
“One of my main roles is to coordinate our partnerships,” Hejlek said. “We recognized an ever-growing need for immediate support. Among that, food is a huge need. A lot of people lost work due to the pandemic, and diapers are another significant expense for families that have infants and toddlers. I knew some of those resources were in the pipeline but I worked with our community partners to fill that gap until the diaper banks could get off the ground.”
Hejlek formerly taught high school in St. Louis before moving to Philadelphia to complete graduate school and she worked in the immigrant and refugee communities before her new role at Southwark. Some ideas came naturally, others came by sharing ideas with other community coordinators.
“We as coordinators are a pretty tight community,” Hejlek said. “Even though we are at different schools in different neighborhoods doing different things, we still get together virtually to share best practices so that no one feels like they have to reinvent the wheel.”
Community Coordinators were honored by the city last week as part of Community Schools Coordinator Appreciation Week. It was a time to reflect on the hard work performed by individuals and a chance to look ahead and plan for the future. There’s no shortage of ideas.
“Especially being a newer coordinator, there is so much wisdom and so much I can learn from people like Janelle and the other coordinators that have been around longer than me,” Hejlek said. “They have a wealth of wisdom that I have learned from.”