“Our teachers do amazing work in their classrooms each and every day, but we at Southwark have realized that a truly successful education requires focus on the large number of factors that impact our students’ lives outside the classroom,” says Lee Begelman. Lee is an AmeriCorps VISTA service fellow through the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND).

Thanks to the VISTA program, Lee is able to serve the community and work at Southwark Elementary School at no staffing cost to the school itself. Lee’s work focuses on developing partnerships between organizations and Southwark, a K-8 school at 9th and Mifflin streets in the heart of South Philly.

He says it’s important that schools have a staff member focused on those relationships.

“A school without a dedicated staff member who can facilitate such partnerships would face difficulty arranging such services and offerings on a consistent basis,” Lee explains. Those partnerships are critical, particularly in a richly diverse neighborhood — like the community around Southwark.

Lee Begelman and the students at Southwark.

The neighborhood’s diversity means the neighbors don’t necessarily all have the same needs. So, the school responds by offering a holistic array of programs, similar to how community schools operate.

Mayor Kenney wants to officially bring community schools throughout the city, making sure that every kid in every neighborhood has a fair shot at success.

Community schools offer programs and services identified as in-demand by the entire school community of students, educators, parents, and neighbors. Services often include on-site childcare, out-of-school time programs, education classes for adults, medical services, counseling, and academic support programs like mentorship or tutoring.

“We are so fortunate to partner with 25 organizations and resource providers who support Southwark students with invaluable programs and tools for academic achievement,” Lee adds, “in addition to services focusing on non-academic needs, like emotional support and parent workshops.”

Many families recently immigrated to Philadelphia, and their experiences at Southwark are their first with the American education system. Aware of this, Southwark established various partnerships to support families as they adjust.

For instance, Lee helps build relationships between Southwark and professors at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University to create English classes for speakers of other languages. The goal, Lee says, is to help parents overcome language challenges so they can help their kids with homework.

And, with the help of South Philadelphia community organization Bethanna, Southwark hosts Parent Homework Help workshops — and includes interpretation services by bilingual counseling assistants.

Esther Lian is one of those bilingual counseling assistants. She works closely with Burmese parents.

“Parents have realized how important it is that they get more involved in their children’s education,” Esther says, “and that partners like Bethanna have made it easier to help their children.”

It is thanks to a dedicated coordinator like Lee that so many programs are available for the community around Southwark. It is a model that Mayor Kenney plans to replicate in the community schools he establishes.

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