For a public school built in 1914, it comes as no surprise the building doesn’t have a modern look, but the inside of the Henry C. Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia is also running into some issues. Thanks to local organizations, some of those issues are beginning to turn around.
The West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools was established in June 2010 in an effort to improve the local schools through the community and its resources. As its first project, the focus has been placed on Lea.
“We talked to a bunch of different teachers and principals and really found that at Lea, we had a principal that was open to letting us into their school,” said Amara Rockar, the board president of the coalition.
When the Philadelphia School District was faced with budget cuts of over $300 million a year ago, Lea felt the slashes in its education as it had to part with the staff librarian.
The West Philly coalition stepped in with the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children to help the school.
“WePac provides volunteer librarians to schools,” Rockar said. “Lea had an excellent retired librarian, Linda Kuffler, leading a team of volunteers to serve the kindergarten through third grade students this year on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.”
With the much newer Penn Alexander School a few blocks east, it’s difficult for Lea to get the same amount of attention. Parents line up outside every year to try and get a spot for their children to enroll.
The Lea Home, School and Community Association offers opinions when the enrollment time approaches regarding the population of Penn Alexander.
“This should not be the case,” said Maurice Jones, the president of the association. “Opportunity should be equal across the district. That is why we work so hard for the betterment of Lea to create that choice.”
Though both schools are part of the Philadelphia School District, people continue to make comparisons between the rival schools, but Lea is trying to take the differences and learn from them.
“The discussion is always there about best practices for a neighborhood school and there are some lessons learned at Penn Alexander that [we] can certainly try to incorporate into Lea Elementary,” Rockar said. “They’re neighboring schools and they’re always going to have some shared history in the future.”
The Home, School and Community Association works with other organizations throughout the community, like West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools and the Garden Court Community Association, to help make a difference at Lea.
“We work as a liaison between the administration, teachers, parents and community to help all of these stakeholders with improving the school physically, academically and with enrichment opportunities,” Jones said.
Visually, Lea has been going through some positive and colorful changes.
The outside play area was once just a slab of concrete, but through the help of these organizations, the school has added murals on the building and a playground. Murals have also been added in the hallways.
“We’re trying to take the interior common spaces and beautify them in a way that sends a message to the students about this being a space that’s cared for and contributing to that positive behavior that happens when you’re in a space that is bright and has murals on the walls,” Rockar said.
The days when people add the murals are known as “paint days,” and the Renewal Church, Walnut Hill Community Association, West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools and Garden Court Community Association have all been partners in this project, said Jones.
“We have been awarded grant funding of over $5,000 in the past two years for this project and Rep. Jim Roebuck was able to get us funding for paint during the first paint day when the district reneged on providing [it],” Jones said.
Despite the reputation schools may have in Philadelphia, Lea is different, and it could be attributed to all the effort put into it by groups like the coalition and the Home, School and Community Association.
“That’s not the climate that Lea really has,” Rockar said. “The visitors that we have come from the main office of the school district whose job it is to visit all different schools throughout the city have remarked on the sort of positive climate that is at Lea.”
Paint Day, the playground and finding a volunteer librarian are just a microcosm of the things done to better Lea Elementary.
The hope is Lea will continue to grow with the help of these organizations and will one day soon be able to raise funds and host events to become a school parents are lining up to send their children to.
“Funding for neighborhood public schools is always going to be something that is a continual project,” Rockar said. “What we’re hoping to do is help provide Lea and the Lea community with the support that they need to become self-sustaining. Once that has been sustained, we’re able to expand our focus and include other schools and replicate what we’re doing at Lea at other schools.”