Every morning as students enter Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia, Principal Richard Gordon is there to greet them with a hug, a handshake, or a dap. And when addressing the school over the PA, he refers to the students and faculty as his family.

The school’s humanistic approach to education has helped transform it from one of the city’s worst-performing schools to one of its best. The approach could be the key to closing the education gap more broadly.

“We actually have to listen to the kids, give them a voice in the building, let them know we care about them, let them know how much we love them, and let them know we’re developing activities that align with their interests,” Gordon says.

Robeson’s education philosophy, known as community schooling, treats a school as not just a place for students to take classes but as a hub for the entire community. 

By tending to the physical, intellectual, and emotional development of everyone in the community, these schools aim to improve public health and create more connected, resilient, better-educated humans — students and adults alike. That holistic approach can help close the education gap between wealthy and under-resourced schools.

“We have to get kids to love school,” Gordon says. “If we get them to love school, it fosters their commitment to getting a great education. It motivates them to overcome and transcend their circumstances to be the best students they could possibly be.”

Conceptually, community schooling has been around since 1902, when seminal educational reformer John Dewey espoused the idea in a speech to the National Education Association. Though the idea has been championed by educators ever since, it’s rarely implemented in schools.

At Robeson, teachers, and staff identify the specific needs of their students and residents of the surrounding community. The Robeson officials then meet with administrators from the Netter Center, the community outreach arm at the nearby University of Pennsylvania, to develop programming to address those challenges.

Many of the resulting programs are activities not typically offered in schools with high rates of poverty. Robeson provides a communal garden for its neighborhood, for instance. The school conducted a vaccination drive earlier this year, as its community has been skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines.

Exposure to new careers

UPenn student Hakiem Ellison says he never would have attended the university were it not for the summer school classes he took while a student at Robeson.

“The program I was able to do in the summer enriched my learning and allowed me to say, ‘I want to go in this direction.’ I could let my curiosity grow,” Ellison says. “It was very, very unlikely I would have gone to Penn if it wasn’t for those people who intervened in my life.”

Ellison is now teaching his own after-school program, Robeson Writes, which teaches Robeson students to express themselves through writing.

Allowing students to develop their own programs is one of the core tenets of community schooling, as it encourages students to directly engage with their school and neighborhood. It also helps broaden their perception of what’s possible.

“Once we start talking about the resources we have over at Penn, the students get excited,” Gordon says. “They ask, ‘Really? That can happen?’ Yes, it can.”

A lack of exposure is one of the biggest problems for students on the wrong side of the education gap, according to Gordon.

“A lot of the time, students are limited by just not knowing what’s available to them,” Gordon says. “How do you know you can be a doctor or a nurse or a physical therapist if you’ve never had the opportunity to learn what those jobs entail, how many years of education they require, what kind of subjects you’ll be studying?”

That’s why Robeson and UPenn have collaborated on a slew of professional development courses aimed at preparing students for corporate life.

The Bridges to Wealth program features instructors from Penn’s Wharton School of Business, one of the most prestigious business schools in the country, teaching Robeson students about financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

“Being in a high-poverty city, our kids are statistically vulnerable,” Gordon says. “We understand that they have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders and a lot of things they have to be concerned about. Academics might be third or fourth on their list.”

Beyond academics

Before partnering with Penn, Robeson was a perpetually underperforming school at risk of closure. Now it’s one of the best performing schools in the Philadelphia public school system.

Netter Center officials believe that the success of the Robeson-UPenn partnership can serve as a template for addressing the education gap nationwide. Robeson is one of eight schools in West Philadelphia working with the Netter Center, and the center now hopes to expand its model to other universities and high schools in the U.S.

The end result of improving schools is more than just a better experience at school — it’s a better life.

“The purpose of an education is to help students carve out a life for themselves,” Gordon says. “One filled with happiness, fulfillment, and purpose. And when our kids don’t have a quality education, they have a hard time finding those things.”

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