The Story of Willard Elementary: A Community School in Kensington

Today, Media Mobilizing Project, announces part 5 in the Revival from the Roots Series.  The series follows myriad Philadelphia School District students, parents and caregivers, staff, and teachers, along with Helen Gym, Co-Founder of Parents United for Public Education, and Jerry Jordan, President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, as they tour Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Schools.  This segment – Revival From The Roots:  Willard Elementary features Willard Elementary, an elementary school located in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

Willard serves a diverse and struggling population of families in one of Philadelphia’s poorest communities.  The school provides many services to families and community members outside the school’s walls – offers many features of a “community school”, or a school that provides an expanded curriculum, wraparound supports for entire families, and deep involvement with the community.

“There was one particular teacher here, when my son was in the first grade… she picked up on how my son had speech impairment,” said Willard parent Denise Rollins in the film. “When they started up the meeting, she came with me. And now my son is an A and B student.  I know that my youngest child, who is not here yet, can get the same thing.  I can get him help before he starts kindergarten.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan notes in the film how struck he is, each time he enters the school, by the happiness of the students, staff, and teachers.  Revival from the Roots:Willard Elementary focuses on the longevity of teachers and families at the school, the availability of wraparound services for new English learners,

Maria Bronte, school counselor at Willard, noted in the film, “75% of our students are Latino. So, a lot of our families are having [been] in the United States for not a long period of time. They’re still trying to become used to the language, the culture, and there is a lack of knowledge in terms of community resources.  So my job is not only to try to help them navigate the school district system, but to try to get them connected to resources in the community that they might not be knowledgeable of.”

Due to system-wide disinvestment in public education at the state and district level, Willard has faced devastating budget and personnel cuts, including a full-time nurse and librarian.  At the same time, the state appointed School Reform Commission has supported the expansion of privately operated charter schools, taking resources away from public schools like Willard.

“Unlike its private charter counterparts, Willard is responsible for guaranteeing quality education for every child that seeks an education, regardless of special needs, language, poverty or the ability of parents to be highly involved advocates for their children,” said Rebekah Scotland, co-director of Media Mobilizing Project, which produced the film.  “But in spite of great setbacks, the Willard school community has continued to model the power, vibrancy and potential of neighborhood public school education, casting out any doubt that public schools in struggling neighborhoods can be places of innovation, academic success, transformation and strong community building. “

In a recent Public School Notebook article, Ron Whitehorne, PCAPS coordinator and retired public school teacher, explains why the Sustainable Community Schools model, which Willard demonstrates in many ways, should be the vehicle for transforming public education:

“The most fundamental question is not charter schools vs. traditional public schools.  The debate should be about equity – should children in Philadelphia and other poor communities in the state be entitled to a quality education with the elements that affluent communities take for granted? Indeed, children in the poorest neighborhoods disproportionately need lower class size and services like health care and counseling that can address the deficits created by poverty. 

PCAPS is leading a Community Schools Initiative – bringing its 20+ organizations together to secure 25 sustainable public community schools by 2018, and promoting schools that provide deep supports to students, families, educators, and communities as key models for “turning around” public schools.

“We want to create schools that are places of hope and humanity,” said longtime education advocate and City Council candidate Helen Gym in the film.  “When people come to a place like Willard that just shines through in so many different ways.”

After a 30 year struggle to secure a space, Willard moved into a brand new building in 2011.  “With the new building, we are able to provide a lot more services,” notes school principal Ron Reilly in the film.  “For instance, the Eagle Eye mobile visits every year – they’ve screened 300 students for glasses.  Ronald McDonald House comes, and we’re able to use the auditorium and our conference room for the children to get dental work.”

“Some of our kids thrive in art.  They thrive in physical education, they thrive in music,” continued the principal.  “We want to provide as many opportunities for kids to come to school, and find that thing that really excites them.”

An EMT volunteers at the school Mondays and Tuesdays, to cover times when the school nurse was cut because of budget shortfalls. “There are more leaks than I have fingers to plug those leaks,” said principal Reilly. “So every day, I have to decide what’s going to leak today.”

“With all of the fiscal problems, and the cuts to programs and services for the children and the staff here at Willard, it’s amazing, the kinds of successes that they’re having every day,” said Jerry Jordan in the film.“This is a school that deserves to be replicated.”