A Little Public School in Philly Shows Us All How It’s Done

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June 15, 2016, Philly Voice

A K–8 public school with fewer than 300 students, located in southwest Center City, Philadelphia, is about to create a first-of-its-kind outdoor space for teaching STEM subjects. Now, you are probably not a teacher, and your charity is probably not a school, but it’s likely that you occasionally have a tough time getting back to sleep at 3 a.m., thinking about your funding. NPQ is having a webinar on that subject on June 22nd, and what follows tells the story of how this community raised $1.7 million to make their concept a reality.

Chester A. Arthur School begins construction on their outdoor STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) schoolyard on June 27th. It will be ready for student wonderment when they return from summer in September.

The William Penn Foundation gave $1.1 million, PWD’s Stormwater Management Incentive Program gave $232,000, and City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson secured $110,000 from the city’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. It was the Friends of Chester A. Arthur (FoCA)—the parents—who found the balance of what was needed to make this dream a reality.

Luz Cardenas, a spokesman for the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, said, “I think this is the first of its kind in the nation. I’ve done a lot of research and I haven’t seen anything like this.” The Fund helped the school find the funding for the project.

Plans for the new STEM school yard call for two outdoor classrooms, a rain and pump garden, a climbing and physics instruction area, raised garden beds, a 50-meter track and sundial, a parking lot surrounded by trees and “sense walls” intended to help the learning experience for children with disabilities.

These features will be broken up into four “labs”: a “habitat lab” geared toward learning about plant and animal life, a “systems lab” focused on hydrology, ecology and stormwater management, a “motion lab” intended to teach proportions, mathematics, human movement and celestial bodies; and an “energy lab” to educate about food and waste, with areas for seat spouting, soil building and composing from school waste streams.

The College of New Jersey’s Center for Excellence in STEM Education will provide the curriculum.

Mark Twain once had this to say about school districts: “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.” This school district, from the board to the administrators, principals and teachers would appear to have come a long way since the stressful times in 2013. The achievement described above was preceded by years of smart partnerships and innovative planning.

The school created first ASCE-sponsored Civil Engineering Club in the nation for middle school students. Arthur’s campus features three separate courtyards for recreation and a community garden. Mural Arts partnered with the school to create nature-themed murals in the courtyards. The school put Promethean boards in every classroom, and the teachers know how to use them. The school offers its students Ballroom Dancing, and a Podcasting Club, Entrepreneur Club, and Design Think Club.

Ms. Kimberly Newman, principal, is out and about nurturing relations for the benefit of her students with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Playworks, Walnut Street Theatre, Free Library, Friends of Chester Arthur, South of South Neighborhood Association, Christian Street YMCA, Drexel University’s Eat.Right.Now nutrition program, and even partnerships with various law firms.

We’ve changed how we teach our students,” said principal Kimberly Newman. “Two years ago, we received a blended learning grant from Verizon. I reached out to the principal of Science Leadership Academy (SLA) because they are also a school that does blended learning. Chester A. Arthur and SLA started this informal partnership between each other, so when the redesign opportunity came up we decided to partner together and formally submit.

One of the school’s teachers currently has a project on DonorsChoose.org, but that is not how this school community goes about doing the heavy lifting. Their fundraising would seem to rely primarily on relationships, not being bashful, and consistently winning the confidence of the town’s foundations, businesses and political leaders and the school’s parents. Ms. Newman surely has her 3 a.m. moments, but she is not getting back to sleep hoping for an Ice Bucket miracle. She is likely resting in the knowledge that she is not alone in her quest to meet every opportunity gap her students face with more firsts in the nation.—James Schaffer