Schools of Success: Filling Needs at Belmont Charter
Back in 2000, when Claire Cohen began teaching kindergarten in Franklin, La., she realized just how challenging it was to reach students who were significantly behind before they even started school. Rather than relying on the curriculum alone, she discovered that success would require meeting students where they are, instead of where they are expected to be. Now, more than 10 years later, she has translated those early lessons as a kindergarten teacher to her work as principal of Belmont Charter School
(BCS) in West Philadelphia.
“We look at the need, whatever it may be,” Cohen says, “and then we find a way to fill it.” And in a community like the one Belmont serves, that need is never solely academic.
BCS’s vision is simple yet powerful. To be successful, a school must be centered in the community. Founded in 2002 as part of the Community Education Alliance of West Philadelphia (CEAWP), BCS is distinct within the charter landscape in Philadelphia. Unlike the typical lottery style of enrollment associated with most charter schools, student enrollment is determined by the geographic catchment area, making the school truly community centered.
To meet this community need, BCS realizes that if it’s going to successfully equip youth with a comprehensive education to combat poverty, the school must become the hub for all relevant services and programs. CEAWP offers a suite of services not typically available in a local neighborhood public school, from a Head Start program targeting school readiness, to a robust after-school program including a range of activities from cooking to cosmetology, to an in-school health clinic, to mental and behavioral support through a Family Support Specialists team.
Executing this programming effectively has required school staff to build meaningful relationships with other community-based organizations, such as the People’s Emergency Center (PEC)
, a comprehensive social service agency for homeless women, teenagers, and their children. When a family is facing challenges, BCS will work cooperatively with PEC to develop a joint plan for meeting particular students’ needs.
It is this blend of education and community-based services that really sets Belmont apart. “When we have a parent who is struggling with a personal issue,” Cohen shares, “they don’t call the City to look for services, they call us.” Not only has the school become a source of information and support for local residents, but it has also provided the community with a sense of stability in the face of considerable uncertainty.
The key according to Cohen is building trust. “We know who we are serving and they believe we have their best interests in mind, which allows us to accomplish more.”
Still, Cohen acknowledes significant challenges. The student population in the Belmont community is both high poverty and high mobility, meaning a sizeable percentage of students move in and out of the area on a regular basis. This mobility, coupled with unpredictability in terms of funding revenue from the district, has strained the school’s capacity.
But rather than throw up their hands, Belmont has instead chosen to build relationships with external organizations that can support their vision. Indeed, last summer the school worked with Springboard Collaborative, an entrepreneurial organization in the City focused on addressing the issue of summer learning loss, and witnessed considerable growth in students’ literacy over the course of the program.
According to Cohen, the strategy again boils down to recognizing the need and being determined to find the best way to fill it, even if that means looking outside of traditional networks. “We have so much going on that we can’t specialize in everything,” she shares, “so we make connections with other organizations that can help us reach our goals.”
The Belmont experience demonstrates that community/school relationships can in fact help stretch limited public tax dollars at a time when state and local governments are faced with a severe fiscal crisis. Communities and schools can clearly do more for less when they join forces to develop strategic partnerships.
Historically, schools have served a powerful role as community anchors but in recent years, these relationships have attenuated. If Belmont is any indication of what is possible, additional work needs to be done to connect schools and communities with information (and one another) to create more impactful partnerships.
This philosophy is scalable district-wide. But doing so will require developing a targeted strategy for each community and investing the requisite time to cultivate trust. Sustainable change takes time. “There’s no magic bullet for any school,” Cohen shares from experience, “you have to get to know your community. Each community is different and the focus should be on serving that community's specific needs.”
CLAIRE ROBERTSON-KRAFT is a PhD candidate in education policy at Penn, where she studies the impact of state and local policy on teachers' practice. She is also the president of PhillyCORE Leaders, a coalition of rising education leaders actively working together for the betterment of Philadelphia schools. Send feedback here.