Through my experiences volunteering at two Philadelphia schools, I have seen firsthand the challenges some students face. Many struggle with literacy, math and comprehension skills to the point where help outside the classroom is necessary.
But in some cases, there are no resources for extra help. I’ve seen the impact this educational struggle has on students’ confidence at an age when positive self-image is vital.
A 2015 National Center for Education Statistics study found that school districts in Pennsylvania with the highest poverty rates receive one-third fewer state and local dollars, per pupil. Nationally, Pennsylvania is ranked the worst state with respect to equitable district funding. And Philadelphia, which is a high-poverty district, has suffered from funding issues in recent years due to state budget cuts to education.
Ultimately, the state’s unwillingness to provide equitable funding to Philadelphia schools negatively impacts students, many of whom reside in low-income neighborhoods like North Philadelphia.
In an effort to help combat this educational inequality, Temple recently partnered with GEAR UP, a Department of Education program funded in Philadelphia with a $29 million federal grant, that seeks to encourage college readiness for low-income middle school students. Temple’s involvement in the program is consistent with its mission of making higher education accessible for Philadelphia students, but this should only be the beginning of Temple’s outreach and influence in local public schools.
“The state makes up a huge chunk of schools’ revenues,” said sociology professor Joshua Klugman. “And Pennsylvania is pretty bad when it comes to allocating its share of school funds to equitably serve low-income schools.”
He advocates his students volunteer as GEAR UP tutors in his Sociology of Education class.
As Temple expands into the North Philadelphia community, everyone at Temple must make an effort to try to positively impact the lives of local students who face the challenges presented by the public school system. For students, outreach from Temple can make college seem like more of a possibility.
As part of the university’s involvement with GEAR UP, Temple students and faculty members will mentor and tutor Philadelphia students, hold college-readiness workshops and create a relationship with public schools, nonprofits, universities and industry leaders in the city.
JeNell LaRue, the assistant director of GEAR UP Philadelphia, said the program is a way to “prepare students and their families for their next steps going into college,” while also “working with our students to decrease the dropout rate.”
While GEAR UP has the potential to forge bonds between Temple and local public schools, the program does have limitations.
“The [main] limitation with GEAR UP is that we’re gone in 2021,” LaRue said, explaining that the grant will only sustain the program for four more years. “So one of the things we are working on feverishly is sustainability.”
The best way for Temple to maintain productive relationships with local schools once the partnership with GEAR UP ends is by not only collaborating with organizations and industry partners outside of Temple, but also by utilizing resources and opportunities for collaboration within the university.
The College of Education has already taken an active and calculated approach to building relationships with local schools.
“We want to make sure that we [engage with] schools and in appropriate ways, and build their capacity and partnership with the college,” Dean Gregory Anderson said.
The college supports internships for its students and works to place pre-service teachers in high-need schools. These efforts are commendable, but I believe a university-wide effort that engages students and faculty from all disciplines is a necessary next step.
“My students do seem to be making connections to students, but those connections only last for a semester,” Klugman said.
All schools and colleges at Temple should not only encourage students to work in community schools, but should also consider incentivizing it with stipends or course credit. This way connections between Temple mentors and local students could last an entire school year or longer.
For example, the College of Science and Technology could encourage its students to give science lessons to local students, and the Fox School of Business could offer financial literacy workshops.
“North Philadelphia presents a great opportunity for students to take what they’re learning in the classroom and really see how it impacts people,” Lehrman said. “If students leave this university without knowing what’s outside of the [university’s] boundaries, then I don’t think we’ve done our job.”
As Temple expands, so should our impact on local schools. It’s imperative that Temple presents itself as a university that cares about students in local public schools and creates a space that is comfortable and welcoming, so local students feel that one day they can study here too.
Alex Voisine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.