Transforming Education: Penn’s Netter Center Team Explains a Successful Model

How do we transform education? Team up.

That’s what researchers and educational leaders from the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania say.

Ira Harkavy, the Netter Center’s founding director, along with Rita Axelroth Hodges, the assistant director, and Joann Weeks, the associate director, collaborated with Matthew Hartley, an associate professor from Penn’s Graduate School of Education to publish the lead article in the Peabody Journal of Education.

As a part of a themed issue focusing on higher education’s role in public school reform and community engagement, “The Promise of University-Assisted Community Schools to Transform American Schooling: A Report From the Field, 1985-2012” details the development of Penn’s partnerships with local schools and community organizations in West Philadelphia. It also outlines how Penn’s University-assisted community school approach has been successfully replicated nationally.

The approach is grounded in 20th century education reformer, philosopher and psychologist John Dewey’s theory that a neighborhood school can function as the core of the neighborhood, providing comprehensive services and working together with other community institutions to solve problems in a rapidly changing world.

The authors say that institutions of higher learning should make helping to solve the problem of the American schooling system a top priority.

Citing concrete examples from more than 20 years of working across West Philadelphia and across the country, the authors explore the potential for developing university-assisted community schools as an effective approach to school reform, from pre-K through higher education. But, researchers say, the potential for impact can be much more far-reaching.

Harkavy calls on higher education to actively engage with public schools and their communities.

“Splendid abstract, contemplative, inner ivory tower isolation will neither shed intellectual light nor produce positive democratic change,” Harkavy, an associate vice president at Penn, said. “From our experience, we believe that university-assisted community schools constitute the best practical means for democratically transforming universities, schools and communities, in order to develop participatory democracy.”

The article also examines promising research findings about the Netter Center’s approach, tips for adaptation elsewhere around the country and policy implications surrounding university-assisted community schooling.

The article is available at

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