Beyond the Ivory Tower

The University of Pennsylvania realized it could no longer escape from its troubled inner-city neighborhood. Instead, it's trying to be part of the solution.

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In 1872, the University of Pennsylvania ran away. In 1996, it's running back.

More than a century ago, Penn moved its campus from its downtown location at Ninth and Chestnut to the countryside west of the Schuylkill River some three miles away, hoping to leave behind crime, noise, and the other thorns of urban life.

But it couldn't escape for long. Between the late 1870s and World War II, West Philadelphia evolved into a heavy industrial area. After the war, it began losing jobs and population, as did neighborhoods in many other large industrial cities.

The process of deterioration sped up in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, violent crime was a growing threat in the neighborhood. University officials began locking doors on campus and hiring more security guards. The university increasingly saw itself as an ivory tower in a war zone.

Once again, Penn faced a choice: Should it retreat into itself, circling the wagons tighter--or even abandon the city altogether? Or should it look outward, venturing into the community to become part of the solution?

Like many other colleges and universities across the country, the University of Pennsylvania came to realize it could not survive as an "oasis of affluence in a desert of urban despair," as one Penn scholar has written. Over the past decade, hundreds of colleges

have forged alliances with local schools and community groups. Syracuse University recently published a directory listing more than 2,200 school-college partnerships of varying size and scope.

What sets Penn's work apart is both its academic focus and the comprehensiveness of its involvement.

For many Penn students and professors, community service is not just a way to spend free time, but an integral part of their studies and scholarship. And unlike many other partnerships, the university has enlisted not just the school of education, but faculty from across the arts and sciences.

Under the umbrella of the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, or WEPIC, Penn offers more than 40 classes where students can study issues facing West Philadelphia, participate in related community-service projects, and conduct research aimed at helping solve local problems. They can enroll in courses like Anthropology 210, where undergraduates study the health status of students at a nearby middle school and then devise programs to help them improve their diet and exercise habits. Other classes blending scholarship with service are offered in the departments of Afro-American studies, architecture and urban planning, English, history, and sociology, among others.

On an institutional level, the university has sought to increase its investment in the neighborhood. Through a "Buy West Philadelphia" program, the university has increased its purchasing from West Philadelphia businesses from $2.1 million in 1987 to $15 million in 1994.

Penn's efforts have attracted national attention in recent years. In 1994, the New York-based DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund awarded it $1 million to help three other schools--the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Ohio at Cincinnati, and the University of Kentucky in Lexington--adopt a similar model.

When Harvard University started up a similar partnership program three years ago, it looked to Penn for inspiration. "I don't know of many other higher education institutions that have been at it as long and as carefully as it has," says Katherine K. Merseth, the executive director of the Harvard Project on Schooling and Children.

The WEPIC project began in the spring of 1985 in a seminar taught by Sheldon Hackney, then the school's president, and historians Ira Harkavy and Lee Benson. What the university could--and should--do to improve its social and physical environment seemed like a good question for their students to tackle, Benson and Harkavy recalled in a 1991 issue of Universities and Community Schools. They proposed an approach that would stimulate students to examine such questions as "Why study history?" and "What are universities good for?"

As a final project, four students joined forces to design a "better, cheaper" youth corps than those usually operating around the country. They proposed a summer corps that would give West Philadelphia teenagers a chance to work on community-improvement projects while simultaneously acquiring practical skills. The project was to begin that summer with 50 students from five neighborhoods.

But in May of that year, something happened that made the need for such a corps even more pressing.

On May 13, a confrontation between city authorities and a black radical group on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia came to a climax when the police firebombed a house in which the armed cult members had barricaded themselves. Eleven members of the cult, known as MOVE, were killed, and the fire spread across two blocks of row houses, destroying 60 homes before it was extinguished.

One Friday evening not long after the incident, Mayor W. Wilson Goode announced that the new youth corps would accept all the young people in the neighborhood affected by the fire--62 of them. Harkavy knew nothing of the mayor's plan until he saw the announcement on television.

After recovering from this initial jolt, Harkavy, Benson, and the students rolled up their sleeves and launched an expanded youth corps with 112 students by the first week in June. The corps members began with a series of beautification projects at Bryant Elementary School, where they removed graffiti, planted trees, and painted murals.

That fall, WEPIC continued to function as an after-school program with various projects linked to the curriculum.

Over time, the youth corps continued to evolve into a more complex effort. Today WEPIC's primary mission is building "university-assisted community schools," or public schools where the university serves as the core that links the school closer to its surrounding community.

Harkavy, the history professor who now directs Penn's Center for Community Partnerships, remains a driving force behind the effort.

A Penn alumnus, Harkavy graduated in 1970--but he never really left. He has spent his entire career at the university, holding a variety of administrative posts and earning his doctorate in history there. While his titles have changed over the years, the job has remained pretty much the same: to marshal Penn's intellectual resources to improve the quality of life in West Philadelphia while simultaneously making advances in knowledge and student learning.

"If Emerson was right that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then I have had a little mind for 30 years," jokes Harkavy, an affable, energetic baby boomer who is still trying to live out the ideals of his student-activist days.

In fact, it's ironic that Harkavy finds himself working closely with the West Philadelphia Partnership, an umbrella organization of universities and community groups that includes WEPIC. Back in 1969, he helped stage an eight-day sit-in at the office of Penn's president. Two issues sparked the protest. One was the Vietnam War and the University City Science Center's role in conducting military research.

The other was the actions of the West Philadelphia Corp.--the predecessor to the partnership--in displacing longtime community residents to build the science center. The corporation envisioned the center as the engine that would drive the revitalization of the area's economy. But the 30-acre research park ended up displacing hundreds of families from their homes, and few new jobs went to community residents.

But in the 1980s, the once elite, top-down corporation that primarily represented the universities' interests became a more diverse and representative partnership when grassroots community groups like the Cedar Park and Spruce Hill civic associations came on board.

The university, too, began courting minority students in the neighborhood, in part to fulfill its pledge to award 125 full-tuition scholarships to graduates of the city's public schools.

Renee Albritton, a native West Philadelphian, never thought about attending the university until she was invited to a presentation for minority students.

"You just looked at it, and you kept going," she recalls. "You knew it was there, and you just didn't think about it."

But the visit made a tremendous difference. It was the first time she noticed there were black students at Penn, and that helped change her mind about going to college there. She graduated in 1984.

Today, she's back at Penn, this time as the director of WEPIC, which is a project of the West Philadelphia Partnership. "There's a lot more interaction with the community now," she says.

But getting Penn and other institutions to reach the point where they begin to join forces with their neighborhoods is far from a simple task.

"If K-12 education is in such desperate straits, and if higher education is more than surviving ... then why doesn't the seemingly healthier partner more frequently extend its hand to its weak and ailing counterpart?" wondered Robert Wood, the former president of the University of Massachusetts, in a 1993 Educational Record article.

One reason has been overspecialization, which has led to greater fragmentation within the disciplines, further isolating academe from the outside world, say Harkavy and John Puckett, an associate professor of education at Penn. Faculty members may rarely speak to colleagues outside their department--let alone a K-12 teacher in a public school.

It's also no secret that most college professors don't get involved in school reform because there are few professional rewards for those who do. The tenure process has long rewarded success in research over success in teaching and service. As everyone knows, the old clich‚ is "publish or perish," not "solve community problems or perish."

Yet, perish is what universities will do if they don't become more responsive to their communities, Harkavy and his colleagues warn.

Nevertheless, Harkavy believes the teaching-research-service debate is a "false trichotomy." Instead of placing less emphasis in tenure decisions on research, Harkavy and his colleagues call for a change in the focus of research. As it stands, 80 percent of the faculty already have tenure, so they can do whatever they want anyway, points out Cory Bowman, the associate director of the Penn Program for Public Service.

So rather than pit research against teaching or service, they suggest fusing them together. Why not direct faculty research and student coursework toward solving pressing social problems in the university's back yard? Here at Penn, they call this "academically based community service."

In a sense, Penn is returning to its roots. Its founder, Benjamin Franklin, was a public servant who embraced the notion of using reason and knowledge to lift up the human condition.

In the mid-1980s, Harkavy, Puckett, and a few other colleagues began studying the theory of "learning by doing" espoused by the progressive educator John Dewey and earlier by the philosopher Francis Bacon.

"We're following some well-trodden paths," observes Puckett, an education professor who came to Penn in 1987 hoping to create urban community-studies programs modeled after the Foxfire approach in rural Georgia.

From there, the Penn scholars dived into the community-school literature, reading about early models of community schools created during the Great Depression, such as Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, which was founded by Leonard Covello, an Italian-born immigrant.

"We've used them to learn about what the elements of a fully realized community school would be, and what the weakness are, and we've given hard thought to overcoming those weaknesses," Puckett explains.

Today, WEPIC has put those lessons into practice in 11 schools. The project has helped transform these schools into vibrant hubs of community activity and health and social-service delivery.

One of them is Anna Howard Shaw Middle School. Located at 54th Street and Warrington Avenue, Shaw's enrollment is 99 percent African-American, and 90 percent of its students come from low-income families.

At 8 on a recent evening, Shaw's halls still echo with lively voices. A new community-school program draws nearly 250 adults and children every Wednesday night. In one room, adults study for the General Educational Development Test, and in another, several 8th graders tutor adults in introductory computer skills. Elsewhere, an African-American studies class with students ages 8 to 40 meets, and a state representative uses a classroom to chat with constituents.

Principal Albert H. Bichner is still in his office as the long day draws to a close. Before he became Shaw's principal, Bichner spent five years as an assistant principal at West Philadelphia High School and the previous 16 as a middle school teacher.

One of the first things Bichner did when he got the job was telephone Puckett at Penn. He knew the education professor from a class he had taken at Penn when he was interested in pursuing a superintendent's job.

"We would have these long heart-to-heart talks," recalls Bichner. "And one day, I said jokingly, 'If I ever become a principal in West Philadelphia, will you entertain the notion of coming out and seeing what I am doing?'"

Puckett agreed, and when Bichner got the job, Puckett kept his promise. Not long after Bichner became principal in 1994, Puckett, Harkavy, Benson, and Bowman paid a visit to discuss how to forge strong links between Shaw and Penn.

"We needed to show some tangible victories first," Bichner thought. So they planned a cleanup day. He invited local block captains and neighbors as well as Penn students to pitch in.

The volunteers painted and scrubbed, hammered and sanded. They installed missing stair rails and doorknobs and planted chrysanthemums and tulips. Penn sent over a team of professional graffiti-removal experts to restore the building's exterior.

Today, Bichner and his staff find themselves taking on bigger projects. They're breaking the 830-student school up into four small "learning clusters," each emphasizing different interdisciplinary themes: physical science and environmental studies, health careers, traditional academics and desktop publishing, and humanities.

They are thankful for the contributions of the 130 Penn students who cross Shaw's threshold each week to help out. These volunteers include environmental-studies majors who are training the Shaw students to collect, bag, and label household substances, which are sent to Penn labs to be tested for the presence of lead.

So far, the changes seem to be having a positive impact. Student behavior has improved, with suspensions expected to number only half last year's total of 900. Average daily student attendance has increased 2 percent to 86 percent, and parent involvement is also on the rise.

Penn students and faculty also play an active role at University City High School, a sprawling modern building just a few blocks from campus.

Principal James Lytle, a soft-spoken but tough man nicknamed "Torch" in honor of his flaming red hair, is straightforward about his expectations of Penn, and so far he is pleased with what he is seeing.

"What Ira has tried hard to do is make this a somewhat more reciprocal relationship," he says of Harkavy. "Not to say, 'We are going out to minister to the heathen,' but to build on the strength of the community."

Penn, of course, is at the heart of that community, but even some university employees admit that the school's fortress-like design has sent a message that local residents are not welcome. For instance, none of the university buildings along the major artery of Walnut Street has an entrance on the street. They all face inward, the only way to enter is from the inside.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the university riled West Philadelphia residents by buying up and clearing land to create a "buffer zone" of empty tracts between it and the neighborhood.

At the heart of the campus is a picturesque central yard dominated by College Hall, a neo-Gothic building of a greenish stone that looks hauntingly familiar. This makes sense later when you learn that Charles Addams used it as a model for the house in his spooky cartoons in The New Yorker.

Directly across the yard is another imposing stone structure resembling a Norman castle. When a fraternity was kicked off campus for hazing and alcohol-related violations, the university turned this prime piece of real estate into a dormitory for students active in community service.

Now, the residence, nicknamed "the Castle," is home to 26 students taking part in the Community Service Living-Learning Program. It's already a popular place to live--last year, 60 people vied for 15 open slots. But those who don't live there are still encouraged to attend the many meetings for service-related activities, and it's open to all students for dinner.

About 7,000 of Penn's 20,000 students currently participate in some form of service activity each year, 5,000 of them giving at least an hour or two to regular weekly commitments.

Perhaps the most active are those students enrolled in academically based community-service classes. Many of them say the academic component has made their service more meaningful.

"I'm using what I learn and trying to put it into practice," explains Monika Tataria, a senior sociology major helping out with a teen-pregnancy study at University City High School. She and her classmates like the fact that, unlike students who volunteer on their own, they can discuss their experiences in the public schools in class and compare notes.

Despite all this flurry of activity, Tataria notes that plenty of her classmates still never venture past 40th Street and that many students continue to see West Philly as a dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhood.

Still, students involved in the effort say their community-service experience has opened up new worlds.

"When I watch the local news, I never cared before who was on the city council and who was the superintendent or what programs they were doing in the schools," says Jill Grappell, a senior sociology major. "Now, I pay more attention--and I actually have a lot to say about it."

Anthropology professor Peggy Reeves Sanday feels teaching a joint class for Penn undergrads and University City high school students has improved her teaching. This spring, there are eight Penn students and seven high school students enrolled in her class, "Cultural Pluralism: Ethnography and Community Service."

"It makes my teaching totally different," Sanday says. "It makes me much more aware of the importance of motivating students. At the same time, I refuse to let them get away with not working."

But Sanday and others still feel there's a long way to go. "My colleagues in the anthropology department are in another world--physically, culturally," she says. "The practical dimensions of scholarship are not relevant to most academics."

Few ask about her work at the high school. "They're not interested," she says. "It's 'just another thing Sanday is doing.' As a scholar, you don't get a lot of credit for doing this kind of work."

Other observers, while finding much to praise in the effort, also note its shortcomings.

"This work in West Philly is much better known outside of Philadelphia than inside it," says Robert B. Schwartz, the education director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is based in the city. "They are not much connected to any other school-university collaborative work in Philly, and I don't know why that is."

As Harkavy reviews some of the grim statistics about the city's economic outlook, he agrees there's still much work to be done. Since 1990, the city has lost 87,000 people, or 5.5 percent of its population. Last year alone, Philadelphia lost 11,000 jobs. And between 1988 to 1992, the percentage of people living on some form of public assistance increased 25 percent.

Nevertheless, Harkavy feels that both Penn and the neighborhood are better today. "That's not to say that all are enlightened, or that West Philadelphia has experienced a 100 percent turnaround," he says. "But each is on its way to a new vision of community. At the sites where WEPIC has been really successful, there is a sense of excitement, hope, and possibility."

"The goal of West Philadelphia and Penn together of producing a first-class community with a good quality of education for all the citizens--we haven't done that yet," he continues. "But I don't think these are utopian dreams. We have the institutional resources and the community leadership that can make this happen."

School Links

As the school day ends at Turner Middle School, students line up at the "Fruits 'R' Us and Vegetables Too" stand to buy apples, oranges, and bags of carrots for the walk home. By the time it closes shop, the stand is pretty much cleaned out, save for a few lonely stalks of broccoli.

The healthy-snack counter is one of several projects launched last spring with the help of University of Pennsylvania students enrolled in Anthropology 205, a course on urban health.

In another project, the 44 Penn students in Anthropology 210--"Biomedical Science and Human Adaptability"--are evaluating the health and nutrition status of Turner students by administering family-health questionnaires and collecting data on such factors as lean body mass and fatness.

The students in that course also lead two 7th-grade nutrition classes, planning their lessons around such themes asAfrican-American culture and nutrition and sports and exercise.

Penny Gordon-Larsen, a doctoral candidate who teaches Anthropology 210, is focusing her own research on the ecology of obesity. She notes that members of minority groups have a high rate of obesity; nearly half of African-American women are thought to be obese.

During one recent nutrition class at Turner, students discussed the school's lunch program to prepare a written critique for the school's principal. The chicken nuggets, students say, are "soggy and nasty," the hamburgers are undercooked, and the mayonnaise is "lumpy."

"If we asked for changes in the way the food looked, if we demanded better food, would you try it?" asks Abby Altman, a Penn senior leading a discussion. A few suggest adding a deli sandwich bar or expanding the after-school fruit stand's hours to include lunchtime.

The two anthropology courses are part of a broader effort known as the Turner Nutrition Awareness Project. Other projects include an ongoing Nutrition Monitoring Center, where Turner students will be able to collect and analyze their own health and dietary data. There's also a 40-member Healthy Lifestyles Club where students do everything from take hip-hop dance lessons to organize healthy bake sales.

School Links

With the help of some University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, the students of Anna Howard Shaw Middle School are working to solve their community's No. 1 environmental problem--lead poisoning.

The Penn students, who are enrolled in an environmental-studies seminar on the urban environment, have trained the 5th through 8th graders to collect, bag, and label household substances such as dirt, dust, and paint chips that might contain lead, which can cause mental retardation and other disabilities in children who ingest it.

The students record the location where they found the items and who lives there. Then, the samples are sent to Penn labs to be tested for lead content, and the environmental-studies students graph and interpret the results.

So far, they've found the lead content to be quite high, notes Alisha Soslow, the liaison between Penn and the middle school. "Some samples were off the scale," she says.

Bob Giegengack, who teaches the seminar, estimates it could cost as much as $15,000 for each affected house to eliminate lead contaminants, making it unlikely that every household in thelow-income area can afford to remove it. So instead, his students are working with the Shaw students to design and publish educational brochures that tell community members how to minimize the risk of lead poisoning.

"It will have a much larger impact when it comes from the kids, rather than in some envelope with a Center City ZIP code," Soslow says.

As a part of their classwork, the Penn students teach weekly lessons in "Science Alliance," one of the middle school's four academic clusters. They also helped the Shaw students plan a community garden, breaking ground this month, that will serve as an environmental education lab.

School Links

About half the 2,000 students at University City High School are girls. And each year, school officials say, about 200 of those girls give birth.

That figure staggers Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. When Furstenberg decided to teach an academically based community-service class at Penn, his initial topic was the transition from high school to work or college. But when administrators at University City High discovered he was an expert on teenage pregnancy--and Furstenberg learned of the school's high birthrate--he changed his mind.

"We kind of talked about it together and discovered it was something that made a lot of sense," he says.

Last month, he and his students were finishing up an extensive telephone survey on teenage sexual behavior. As they prepared the 150-question survey, they asked students, teachers, and parents to advise them on the wording.

It was the teenagers' responses that helped the most. For example, they said that if they were asked about birth control, they would think of birth-control pills, but not any other kind of contraception.

Besides surveying student attitudes, Furstenberg and his students are also developing a program to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.

"I have talked with the school about how it has put more resources into dealing with the teen mothers than into preventing the pregnancies from occurring," he says.

Of course, the tough question is how to change the emphasis. Furstenberg believes the best solution is to try to "create a more tangible sense of the future for kids for whom the future is blurry at best, and bleak in other cases."

One of the more unusual approaches the project is taking is to have some high school students enroll in a Penn sociology class. The idea is for the students to be exposed to college life and to give them a goal to aim for. Perhaps, program officials think, the students will then be more willing to postpone sex or practice contraception to avoid a pregnancy that would keep them from reaching that goal.

Vol. 15, Issue 31, Pages 33-36

Published in Print: April 24, 1996, as Beyond the Ivory Tower
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