Jeff Hornstein is the chair of Friends of Neighborhood Education (FONE), a coalition that organizes more than 40 “Friends of” groups, or collections of neighbors investing in their neighborhood schools. The organization serves as the education committee for the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, a federation of all civic associations in the city.
In 2014, the Crosstown Coalition met to discuss priorities for neighborhoods and Hornstein found many civic associations invested in neighborhood schools. But those civic organizations were mainly hearing voices from gentrifying neighborhoods – Center City, University City, Northwest.
Can you explain the difference between friends groups and home and school associations?
Friends groups often start in schools that have no home school associations, and like Nebinger. At Nebinger, the friends group now has become a training ground for leaders to move into those home school association positions once they become parents of kids at the school.
So Nebinger is now about 10 percent white, I think it’s about 40 percent black, 20 percent Asian and 20 percent Latino. I could be off in that a little bit but it’s roughly that. The middle class white people have basically been doing a lot of fundraising, grant writing, and retired ladies from Queen Village [where the school is located] are helping out with that effort.
Now, they’ve got a home and school association because a lot of those middle class parents who started as outsiders have decided to send their kids there. So it’s like this process that’s happening, now, of very slow socio-economic integration.
So over time, this school, Nebinger, will become 15 percent white or 20 percent white or maybe 25 percent white over time, and that’s going to build the capacity of the home and school association, which is made up of parents. Friends groups are made up of community members, that’s the big difference.
What are the socio-economic factors facing these friends groups?
What’s been happening, which is kind of interesting, is that middle class white people are starting to send their kids to the neighborhood schools again, right? Slow, but steady growth. And why this is interesting is that we are able to mobilize resources and supports for schools that are still 80, 90 percent low income kids. And those supports are able to help the entire school.
You know, this isn’t apartheid South Africa. So, if a friends group at Chester Arthur raises $2 million dollars, which they have, to build a world-class playground, it’s not just the rich white kids or the middle class white kids that get to use it. Everybody gets to use it. So it becomes a neighborhood and school amenity. It’s a very grassroots attempt to deal with the problems of socio-economic segregation in our city that are happening at the block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood level.
Are there examples of this same success in less wealthy neighborhoods?
That a neighborhood school is a community anchor. And the sad reality in Philadelphia is that so many of our neighborhoods have been so disinvested.
Hunting Park is an interesting example because Hunting Park has a pretty good home school association. They manage to scrape their nickels together, they go door to door and they collect $2 here and $5 there. And I’ve worked with some of the ladies there, they’re kind of amazing.
McClure is one of the schools I’d like to start a friends group at because you need to have some businesses and some community partners who say, “This school is important to our community and we need to figure out how to support it.”
Now, what’s interesting and has been transformative for us, is realizing we have a common cause to make with folks like Parents United. They’ve fought hard in working class neighborhoods to stop school closures because there’re very few institutions left in a lot of these poor neighborhoods. So if the school goes, that’s kind of the end for the neighborhood.
Would you call this a trickle-down effect?
So it’s not trickle-down, it’s really bottom up.
I mean the thing that we haven’t been so good at, and we’re very very self-conscious of this, is that the friends groups have mostly been middle class community members not connected to the working class kids, the families that make up the majority of these schools. And that’s our big challenge, is to really integrate our movement across race and class, but, again that’s kind of a major American problem that we’re dealing with at the neighborhood level.
The thing is we’ve been very good at mobilizing resources and getting stuff done.
How do you encourage this same investment in all neighborhoods?
So we’re now looking at how one starts a friends group in a non-gentrifying neighborhood, so we’re working in Jay Cooke, at Weir Mitchell, T. M. Pierce in North Philly and a number of other schools. We’ve made an alliance with Parent Power. We’re also working with the Philadelphia Home and School Council to try and figure out how we build community support for schools, no matter what kind of neighborhood they’re in.
Friends groups are largely invested in elementary schools. Why does the community support stop at the high school level?
It’s almost entirely in elementary schools right now, for the simple reason that it’s a neighborhood-based movement. High schools have pretty large geographies. Though there are a couple of high schools with friends groups, Penn Treaty is one of them. But this is mostly a movement at the K through eight level. In a lot of ways because parents of young kids tend to be more involved in their kids’ education anyway.
And by the time they get to high school?
I mean if you’re a middle class kid in Philly you have plenty of good high school options. Right? You can put your kid on the El when they’re in eighth or ninth grade and send them to a magnet school. When your kid’s 6 or 7, you want to be able to walk them to your neighborhood school, that’s why you live in the city.
– Text by Brianna Spause.