Penn’s Netter Center Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary With an International Conference

PHILADELPHIA – To celebrate 20 years as a university-wide center that develops democratic partnerships with its West Philadelphia neighbors, the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships will hold a two-day international conference Nov. 12-13 in Houston Hall, 3417 Spruce Street. The theme is "The Role of Higher Education-Community-School Partnerships in Creating Democratic Communities Locally, Nationally and Globally.”

The Netter Center is known around the world for its university-assisted community schools model, in which neighborhood schools become centers of learning and activities for all residents.  An example is Sayre High School where school-day and after-school academic and cultural enrichment, college- and career-readiness supports and a full-service health center extend the school’s role as a community hub well into evenings and weekends. This model has been replicated nationally, and two regional training centers have been created in Tulsa through the Higher Ed Forum of Northeastern Oklahoma and at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. 

The Netter Center is also known for its academically based community service courses, created with faculty members from schools and centers across campus, in which Penn students engage in real-world problem solving by working with West Philadelphia public schools, faith-based groups and community organizations on neighborhood issues, including those related to the environment, health, arts and education. Fifty-nine faculty taught ABCS courses that engaged more than 1,700 Penn students in the community during the 2011-12 academic year.

“These programs have roots that go back beyond 1992, the year the Center for Community Partnerships was officially created,” said Director Ira Harkavy, who has led Penn’s partnership efforts with the community for decades, “and long before 2007 when Barbara and Edward Netter provided  their truly transformative naming gift.”

In a 1985 history honors course Harkavy co-taught, his students proposed the idea of a West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, a youth-corps designed to work on community revitalization in the neighborhood around the University.  As the work deepened, WEPIC evolved into today’s model. Two years later, the higher ed civic and community engagement in the Philadelphia region was expanded as Penn and two other local universities, Temple and La Salle, co-founded the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development, or PHENND, which today is comprised of 35 institutions of higher education and continues to have its staff based at the Netter Center.

Then in 1988, the University institutionalized its relationship to the city and the community, stating in its annual report, “We stand on common ground, our futures are very much intertwined.”

The first university-assisted community schools opened in 1989 at West Philadelphia High School, Lea Elementary School and Turner Middle School, the site of the first Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative program that got under way in 1995 as Penn undergrads and Turner students opened the “Fruits R Us — and Vegetables Too” produce stand. 

Two subsequent events highlight the importance of the Netter Center’s partnership with the community.  In 2006, the Center helped to initiate a pilot skills development center with the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for 200 local residents.  Following the successful pilot, the Netter Center worked with the University City District to launch the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative in 2009, a regional workforce development partnership that connects school students, adults and local employers to internship and job training programs linked to specific local employment opportunities.

Secondly, the Netter Center catalyzed the partnership that in 2007 launched the Dr. Bernett L. Johnson Jr. Sayre Health Center at Sayre High School, founded to operate a federally qualified health center in the school.  The center is a cooperative effort of the West Philadelphia community surrounding the high school, the school itself, Penn and the School District of Philadelphia. The health center also provides Sayre students with an early introduction to health careers, working with Penn medicine, nursing, dental, social work, law and arts and sciences students.  The SHC provides direct care to the uninsured and underserved, regardless of their ability to pay.

The Netter Center’s mission has had the strong support of the University’s most recent presidents . President Sheldon Hackney   proposed the creation of this University-wide center in 1990 and established it in 1992.  Former President Judith Rodin made academically based community service a core component of Penn undergraduate education, and in 2004, current President Amy Gutmann made engaging locally, as well as increasing access to higher education and integrating knowledge across disciplines, a key platform in her Penn Compact.

Over the years, the world outside West Philadelphia has recognized the Netter Center’s value, as corporations and governmental agencies have provided grant funding for a variety of Netter Center programs, and several other countries, including Australia and South Africa, have begun adaptation of the Center’s work.  The Netter Center is also the organizational center for the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy that works in collaboration with the Council of Europe, which includes 47 member countries.  The IC seeks to explain and advance the contributions of higher education to democracy on college and university campuses, their local communities and the wider society

The Netter Center, Harkavy and the university-assisted community school model have all brought numerous accolades to Penn from non-profit, governmental and educational groups.  The Netter Center has contributed significantly to various Penn awards, most notably, the Presidential Award of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll (2012 and 2008), and the top spot in 2009 in the “Best Neighbor” University in the U.S. by “Savior of Our Cities: 2009 Survey of Best College and University Civic Partnerships.”  

Next week’s conference will review the many aspects of university-community-school partnerships and explore where the higher education civic engagement movement will be in another 20 years.

Additional information about the Netter Center and the 20th anniversary conference is available.