Hunting Park: The Fight to End Truancy

Michael Rice explained some of their organizations.

For the past 11 years the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Office of Truancy Prevention has nurtured a very special group. Equal Partnership in Change (EPIC), working together to find solutions, has grown from one main city group into eight community-based subgroups called stakeholders. Hunting Park is one of their largest groups.

“Hunting Park is one of our largest and most powerful groups,” said Michael Rice, a DHS community engagement specialist. “They have about 51 percent community involvement, probably our highest community attendance rate, from parents to young adults.”

The other 49 percent is made up of local officials, school board members and, of course, the DHS specialists are actively involved in the groups.

The group meets at least once a month and a translator is provided for the non-English speaking community members who want to be involved. As reported in the University of Pennsylvania’s neighborhood data base, roughly 60 percent of Hunting Park’s overall population is Latino.

“The goal was to bring the community together and together we would work on solutions,” Rice said.

Michael Rice talked about truancy.

Rice talked about some of the initiatives, such as poster and poetry contests, focusing on keeping the kids active and engaged in learning. He is a former Hunting Park resident and Temple University graduate so he understands the importance of education and revival in the neighborhoods. The group also provides peer mentoring and school attendance support programs. Every month there are activities in each neighborhood. They have created a schedule and word of mouth has been their greatest advertising tool.

The organizations involved in the programs at the Department of Human Services (DHS).

Penn’s neighborhood database shows that roughly 37 percent of Hunting Park is made up of children under the age of 18. Only 32.8 percent of Hunting Park has received a high school degree. This leaves a little more nearly 70 percent of the adults in the neighborhood uneducated at a basic level, let alone at the college level.

“Truancy is sort of a gateway crime,” said Lisa Dooley, a DHS social worker and truancy specialist. “Lack of attending school usually leads to more serious offenses and usually means there are deeper issues going on with the child at home.”

Barriers surround the neighborhood and EPIC’s goal is to help the community overcome them. Violence in the community and schools, substance abuse, mental and physical health issues, poverty, educational and social-economic issues have been in and around the neighborhood for years, although Hunting Park was not always faced with such barriers and was a thriving industrial neighborhood in the early 1900s.

“It starts with the youth,” Rice said. “We’re trying to create a stable future for Hunting Park and all of the neighborhoods in Philadelphia.”

Lisa Dooley explained their truancy tactics.

While the stakeholder groups focus specifically on truancy, EPIC focuses on a wide range of issues and is committed to offering their helping hand as well as other resources to the community. By adopting entire classes at low-performance schools and providing resources to homeless families and victims of violence, EPIC tries to be involved and active in each aspect of the community.

The group also works on beautifying the neighborhood so the community can enjoy their surroundings. EPIC has participated in vacant lot clean-ups, planting trees and flowers and many more green projects to come.

“A few years back they were trying to build a toxic disposal plant in Hunting Park,” Rice said. “This was a specific time in my mind where I remember thinking how strong the community was.”

A toxic disposal plant wanted to locate a facility in the Hunting Park area. Officials from the plant went around and asked the community groups to bring people together to discuss the plan. What the plant owners didn’t expect was the turnout at the meeting.

“There were over 100 people at the meeting when they got there,” Rice said. “Everyone from community leaders and members, elected representatives and state officials were gathered there. It was a massive meeting.”

The end result was the people said “no” to the plant and after negotiating for a while the people from the plant actually ended up educating the stakeholder members on environmental issues and giving them a $25,000 grant to help improve the environment in their community.

On average, EPIC sponsors over 300 activities throughout the city each year. To learn more, call the Community Engagement Unit at 215-683-4000.

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