A Community Partnership in the Public Schools

WEPIC is a year-round program involving approximately 4,500 children, their parents, and community members in educational and cultural programs, recreation, job training, community improvement, and service activities. WEPIC seeks to create comprehensive, university-assisted community schools that are the social, service delivery, and educational hubs for the entire community. Ultimately, WEPIC intends to help develop schools that are open 24 hours a day and function as the core building of the community.

The academic work done with the WEPIC schools is based upon a community-oriented, real-world, problem-solving approach. Activities are focused upon areas chosen by each school's principal and staff. In this neo-Deweyan approach, students not only learn by doing, but also learn by and for service. WEPIC schools serve, educate, and activate students, their families, and other local residents. The idea behind this approach is that schools can function as the strategic and catalytic agents for community transformation.

While WEPIC works with twelve schools, the major WEPIC community schools have been the John P. Turner Middle School and the Anna Howard Shaw Middle School.

On any Saturday, the Turner Community School is bustling with over 250 students and adults. There are classes in aerobics, obtaining college scholarships, African hair-braiding, ceramics, vegetarian cooking, and much more. During the week, there are after-school job training, enrichment, and homework programs, an early morning computer workshop, and meetings for students and teachers engaged in a project to improve the health of the Turner Community.

From its beginnings, landscape improvement was a fundamental tool in WEPIC's repertoire. Although the long-term goals for WEPIC were broad, the initial short-term goals were focused. The original plan was to have small crews of students work on landscape improvements at West Philadelphia public schools during the summer of 1985. After the tragic MOVE fire on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in May 1985, however, resources were concentrated to address the traumatic stress of that community. The work focused on Bryant Elementary School, two blocks from the fire. The plan succeeded: the students were very proud of their work and neighbors, noticing the clearly visible improvements, stopped by to offer their words of praise and encouragement.

Since that first summer at Bryant, a "landscape improvement" project has served as the initial project for each new school that has become involved with WEPIC. The landscape projects have been important to WEPIC for several reasons: they are inexpensive to initiate, they yield highly visible results, they provide common objectives to people with disparate backgrounds, and they require skill levels that are appropriate for the students. Perhaps even more important for the spirit of the community, is that a school yard is land which is seen as community property. By improving the school, WEPIC is improving a permanent and public part of the community.

With the success and excitement of its initial project, other "non-landscape" projects quickly proliferated. The job training goals of WEPIC have led to projects of housing rehabilitation with the Carpenters' Union, pipe organ restoration with the Curtis Organ Restoration Society, and retail management at the West Philadelphia High School Store. In addition, students working with WEPIC put together a regular newsletter.

If there is a single word which underlies the philosophy of WEPIC it is partnership. WEPIC is a program of the West Philadelphia Partnership, a corporation composed of institutions and community organizations in West Philadelphia. Partners in WEPIC's projects include unions, job training agencies, churches, community groups, and city, state, and federal agencies. The University of Pennsylvania is one of the institutional members of the Partnership. It was here, in a 1985 undergraduate honors seminar taught by Ira Harkavy, Lee Benson, and President Sheldon Hackney, that the framework for WEPIC was first envisioned.

The excitement felt by people working in WEPIC is a direct product of the collaboration that is the founding principle of the organization. Because of the excitement generated by its successes, it has generated a corps of key individuals committed to its continued success. In the words of Dr. Ira Harkavy, "It's a movement!"

Teachers are enthusiastic participants in WEPIC programs. In one school, teachers who were disenchanted and near retirement were asked to set their own agendas for the program, then given the opportunity and the resources to implement their agendas. Suddenly, teachers who were rarely excited by their workday, were volunteering for after-school and weekend programs. One teacher, wrote, "It was the first time I had participated in a program where the administration actually valued my expertise as a classroom teacher and encouraged my opinions and suggestions."

Landscape improvements continue play an important role in WEPIC's programs. Plans underway for a commercial garden center to be run by the WEPIC students and to serve the West Philadelphia marketplace. The center was inspired by the Camden Garden Center in London and is conceived as an opportunity for vocational training that also responds to other community needs. Not all the students will pursue future careers in horticulture or landscape construction and maintenance. Even those who do not, however, will benefit from the skills acquired in business management and customer service. The young people who participate in WEPIC leave their mark on West Philadelphia and hopefully will go on to become educated responsible leaders in their community.

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Last Update: 20 August 1997