At the conclusion of the 2001-02 school year, Belmont Elementary School was recorded in the bottom 7% of all schools in the School District of Philadelphia. The School Reform Commission converted Belmont into a charter school in the summer of 2002. Unlike other charters in the District that enroll citywide, Belmont maintained its status as the local, neighborhood school. The mission of Belmont Charter School is “in partnership with the Belmont Community, to support the academic, emotional and social success of each child.” The Community Education Alliance of West Philadelphia, a non-profit, was founded in October 2002 to provide social services-based programming, including Head Start, social workers, and after-school and auxiliary programming, to the students and their families. Belmont grew into a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade model a year at a time, graduating its first eighth-grade class in June 2006. As a component of this growth, I began speaking with Nell Anderson, director of Praxis and Community Partnerships, in the fall of 2004, after she had contacted me through a friend about the possibility of placing Bryn Mawr College Praxis students from the “Schools in American Cities” class in the school.
Partnering with the College, which began that fall with the involvement of a few Praxis students, coincided with a turning point in the development of Belmont Charter School. Having joined the Belmont staff in the summer of 2003, I had worked to help build a supportive and stable programmatic framework within the school, but much of our work was still by and large reactive. Many of our students and their families struggled to gain consistent access to city-provided social services; this time period was one of significant growth for our school-based Family Support team. We also acknowledged that some of our students struggled behaviorally and were not ready for a regular school environment. Rather than resort to disciplinary school transfers, we chose to keep these students and provide them with a tailored academic, social and emotional learning environment. The CARES program began with three teachers, a social worker and a behavioral support staff member who serviced no more than 20 students at any one time. The Praxis program marked the first time that individuals not directly associated with the school — college students — were working with our students on a regular basis.
The partnership with the Civic Engagement Office (CEO) developed organically. At first Nell and I maintained a small cohort of students within the building who were each directly associated with a strong classroom teacher. The school and the CEO were almost growing in tandem at this time. Nell and I had many conversations and debates about our Belmont Praxis students’ journal responses and class reflections, about how to teach through direct experience while avoiding the predictable pitfalls college students could fall into concerning the significance of their place working in an economically disadvantaged community. In turn, the Praxis students’ questions and perspectives about the unusual structure of the school as a charter in name, but a public school in practice, helped me to shape my understanding of our work and our mission. My staff and students quickly acclimated to having Praxis placements within the building: the students began asking when they would get a “special friend,” and I soon had a growing list of teachers who wanted to work with a Praxis student in their classrooms.
Due to the holistic nature of our school, Nell and I soon realized that there were any number of possibilities for Praxis placements within the building and our programming. By the spring semester of 2005, we accepted students from psychology courses such as “Behavior Modification,” sociology courses such as “Sociology of Poverty,” English courses such as “Writing in Theory/Writing in Practice,” and education courses such as “Empowering Learners.” Rather than regular classroom placements, we began looking at opportunities for Praxis students to work with our prep classes, such as Drama, as well as our non-traditional classrooms in the CARES program and our BEST after-school program. Through one Praxis placement, our kindergarten students were taught basic French. The relationship between Belmont and the CEO grew into a solidified, reciprocal partnership.
Today, only two and a half years later, Belmont hosts over 70 students who work as mentors in our BEST after-school program, a partnership between our new lacrosse program and the Bryn Mawr College lacrosse team, the Belmont and Bi-College cooperative theater project, “The ‘I’ Inside,” as well as a new group of Praxis students: well over 100 student-to-college student connections in total. While the sheer growth in numbers of this program is astounding, the greater impact can be found within the relationships that have developed. In creating an environment conducive to cooperative, experiential learning, both college students and the Belmont community alike do not profess to have any easy answers to the conundrums still plaguing our nation’s educational system. However, through openness to the possibilities of change, the individualized experiences of Praxis students and Belmont community members have become a mutually supportive learning experience. There is no one test that can clearly define the complexities of our partnership with the Civic Engagement Office, but in refusing to define or standardize this success, the potential for our continued growth remains as infinite and varied as the individuals who choose to engage with the community surrounding them.
Samantha Foster ’01 is the director of Belmont Charter School, a community planning fellow for West Philadelphia High School, and lives in West Philadelphia.