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  • Jennifer Egmont
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Partnering for Student Success

Increasingly, the discussion about improving schools and student achievement is moving beyond teacher training, test results, and school district policies. While addressing these issues is certainly crucial to serving students well, a recent push toward a more holistic approach calls upon the broader community – businesses, civic groups, and others – to ensure students’ needs are met and they are prepared for success beyond high school.


During last month’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, a group of 40 area business and civic leaders visited Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood to learn how educational partnerships with private and civic groups are supporting schools and students.


A New Plan for Neighborhood High Schools


In 2003, Kensington High School was one of many struggling neighborhood schools in the city of Philadelphia. Ninety percent of 11th graders were performing below grade level and far too many students were not graduating. In an effort to improve student performance, the Kensington community and the School District of Philadelphia worked together to craft a new approach. Their decision was to break up Kensington High into smaller schools focused on specialized areas such as creative arts, business, culinary arts, and health sciences.


These redesigned schools were intended to better address the increasingly complex task of preparing students for success in careers and life. This task can be especially daunting for schools in neighborhoods like Kensington, which serve large numbers of children in poverty who often lack access to crucial educational supports such as enrichment activities, exposure to career options, and basic health care.


During a visit to Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA), Leadership Exchange participants saw first-hand how Principal James Williams leverages partnerships to support student learning and success. Students have access to a state-of-the-art dental lab and other technologies that prepare them for careers in health sciences as well as postsecondary education. Partners like 12 Plus and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children provide on-site mentoring, internship opportunities, and curricular support, among other services.


HealthWorks Academies provides KHSA with a turnkey program linking science, technology, engineering and math curricula with health care and life science industry careers. While teachers and school leadership continually work to stay up-to-date on industry trends and link academic subjects to specific career opportunities, they also rely on the support and expertise of industry partners. HealthWorks Academies, for example, ensures that KHSA’s curricula and materials are preparing students for jobs in the ever-changing health care sector. And there is evidence that the work of Principal Williams and his team is paying off. In 2014 KHSA achieved a 21 percent increase in graduation rates – the biggest one-year jump in the district. Principal William’s goal is for the graduation rate to continue to rise and to increase the number of students enrolling in postsecondary education.  


The Nuts and Bolts of Working Together


Our afternoon in Kensington also included a panel discussion with school partnership veterans who provided a diversity of perspectives on how to make these relationships successful. The discussion was hosted at Oxford Mills, a turn-of-the-century textile mill repurposed to provide affordable housing for teachers and office space for education-focused organizations with the larger goal of nurturing a community of education professionals.


Panel moderator Stacy Holland, executive director of the Lenfest Foundation, opened the discussion by reinforcing the value and power of partnerships in education. As the visit to KHSA illustrated, preparing students for success in 2015 requires an ecosystem. And while schools are clearly at the center of this ecosystem, they also require the resources and expertise that business and community partners provide.


Recognizing the importance as well as the challenge of getting partnerships right, the School District of Philadelphia recently established the Office of Strategic Partnerships to identify, coordinate, and match partner and volunteer resources and align them with the priorities of the district and the needs of individual schools. Executive Director Vicki Ellis described this process and what makes for a good match. Most critical is a shared vision and goals between school leadership and partner organizations. While a partner might have great assets to offer, if these resources don’t match the needs of a school, they are ultimately not a good fit.


Other panelists spoke about the day-to-day work and rewards of managing partnerships from the perspectives of businesses, schools, and nonprofit providers. Alyssa Cherkin from Deloitte described the evolution of the Deloitte Education Collaborative, which has been providing one-on-one mentoring for high school students in a variety of school settings since 2007. Mara Cooper from Mastery Charter Schools talked about Mastery’s internship program, which places 850 students in internships around the city each year. This process requires intensive outreach, collaboration, and management to ensure that the experience is a success for both students and businesses. HealthWorks Academies’ Dale Keshishian discussed the partnership experience with KHSA and other schools across the US.



In our region and across the country, a discussion is taking place about the need for schools to be more open and adaptable and for businesses to engage more directly in improving education. Our visit to Kensington gave Leadership Exchange participants an opportunity to dig a bit deeper into ways to implement these recommendations, hear about the challenges and rewards of educational partnerships from those engaged in them, and consider how they themselves can contribute to this work. And for good measure, Principal Williams was sure to collect business cards from participants as they exited his school so he could find a way for them to do so.


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