Written by Justine Mariscal
When the Mayor’s Office of Education (MOE) in Philadelphia partnered with the School District of Philadelphia to implement Community Schools, Edward Gideon Elementary School was part of the first cohort to make the shift in 2016. The school, which serves K-8th graders in North Philadelphia, is now entering its fourth year as a Community School and its Coordinator, Gregory Wright, has been with the school throughout the whole process.
In order to best serve students and the community, Wright led a needs assessment process in 2016 and 2017 by holding focus groups and collecting surveys. He also utilized the school's proximity to public housing developments to ask community members what their top three priorities were for the neighborhood. The main themes that emerged were concerns about school safety, a lack of afterschool activities, and the need for more family and adult resources.
To address school safety, the school’s leadership worked with the Mayor’s Office of Education and the School District to bring in new school climate supports, including a partnership with a behavioral health agency and a “STEP” team consisting of a full-time therapist and three supporting behavioral health specialists. The STEP team meets with students weekly, hosts group therapy sessions, and creates behavior intervention plans. The team includes a family case manager who works with family members and walks them through the process of signing their student up for services as well as providing support in getting them to therapy sessions. Gideon Elementary also implemented a positive behavior intervention system to incentivize positive behavior. Students can earn “Tiger Bucks” (a reference to Gideon’s mascot) which can be spent at monthly Tiger Day dance parties.
To expand supports for school families and neighbors, Wright developed partnerships with the Pennsylvania Health Access Network and Rental Assistance Program. As both programs began holding office hours on the school’s campus, Wright and Gideon’s Community School Committee noticed that participation was low compared to the overall demand for services. To improve attendance, they decided to host both programs on one convenient night at the same day and time once a month. The event became known as First Mondays, as it’s held at the school in the evening on the first Monday of every month. Now in its 3rd year of operation, First Mondays has grown to include additional resources including food programs, job and clothing resources, housing and health care support, and registration for adult education classes. Thanks to his successful marketing of First Mondays, Wright was able to establish a partnership with Philabundance, a hunger relief organization, which has given the school the opportunity to hand out 1,000 pounds of free produce each week. First Mondays has also turned into an after-school activity for the older students at Gideon as they act as volunteers for the event.
Since becoming Gideon’s community school coordinator, Wright has also brought in new partnerships which has multiplied the school’s after-school offerings. For example, a partnership with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program provides after-school arts activities as well as career readiness opportunities for older students during the summer.
Community partnerships have also helped Gideon Elementary establish a successful attendance initiative inspired by a New York City community school that Wright visited. A giant gameboard, referred to as Gideonopoly , takes up the space of a whole wall in one of the school's main hallways. Each classroom has an icon that can only move around the board if they have 100% attendance. Sprinkled around the board are attendance incentives like signed footballs, a meal of their choice cooked for their class, and even the chance to pie the assistant principle in the face. In addition to offering incentives, the school’s attendance team regularly reviews attendance data to identify trends and develop plans to support students. Wright and his leadership team have seen an attendance rate increase in Gideon that outpaced the overall school district’s.
Becoming a Community School has radically transformed Gideon Elementary’s image and reputation. Wright reports that many families tell him they are proud to be part of the Gideon community. However, transformation is never easy. Wright even credits part of his success to mistakes, which taught him the art of delegation and the importance of creating partnerships with people he can trust to successfully take lead on a program. He also places importance on being able to say “no” when appropriate as to not get burned out.
Seeing the community school initiative as a benefit to the whole community, Wright does not take his work for granted and loves every aspect of what he does. The biggest thing he has learned in his role is to trust his students, as they will always rise to the occasion and show up if you ask them to.
To get a glimpse of the amazing work being done at Edward Gideon Elementary School, you can follow them on Instagram and Twitter @egideonk8.