Glen Casey will be the first to admit it: He wasn’t the perfect student in high school.
“I was always doing the dumbest things; getting into fights, getting arrested,” he says.
A student then at University City High, Casey failed ninth grade, and barely passed 10th.
“I just really wasn’t into school,” he says.
But that was seven years ago. Today, Casey holds an undergraduate degree from Penn in urban studies and economics, and is a fellow at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships—the same organization that’s played a major role in turning his life around.
“The work that the Netter Center does is what gets young students motivated,” he says, “and helps them discover their passion.”
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Netter Center is Penn’s primary vehicle for connecting the University to the community, specifically to its West Philadelphia public schools. Its concept is one that, since 1992, has served as a model for other higher education institutions across the country, and even the world.
“This work is fundamentally about helping universities and colleges realize their promise and maximize their contribution to advancing knowledge and improving the quality of life,” says Ira Harkavy, the Netter Center’s founding director. “So that the societies they are part of will be fair, decent, and just for each and every citizen.”
The Center’s roots
Harkavy first came to Penn in 1966. An undergraduate student in the College of Arts & Sciences, the Bronx, N.Y., native was sure he wanted to be a lawyer.
“I simply had no idea of the deeper implications and impact of higher education,” he says.
That attitude changed quickly. Crediting numerous Penn professors, especially the late Lee Benson, a distinguished social science historian, Harkavy’s eyes were opened to a variety of issues and ideas that still shape his life and what he does in his career.
In college, Harkavy found himself not only participating in antiwar demonstrations, but also leading highly publicized student protests, including a six-day, peaceful sit-in at College Hall related to the way Penn and other nearby institutions treated the West Philadelphia community.
“I became a history major, which deeply influenced my academic experience here,” he says, while chatting in his office at 38th and Sansom streets. “As an activist, studying history to help improve and change the world appealed to me.”
Harkavy went on to complete his master’s and doctorate degrees in history at Penn. By 1983, he was vice dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and paving the way with leaders like Benson and Sheldon Hackney, the University’s president at the time, for what would first become the Center for Community Partnerships, and later, thanks to a generous endowment, the Netter Center.
Jettie Newkirk, chair of the Netter Center’s Community Advisory Board, moved to Philadelphia from Florida in the 1960s to teach. She began her career at Sayre, then a middle school, and later became a counselor at West Philadelphia High School.
Recalling the “toxic” climate that existed in the 1960s and ’70s in West Philadelphia, she says, “All of the unrest that came about in those years demanded your involvement in things outside of the school system.”
To this day, Newkirk is connected to Penn to make sure mutual respect is granted—on both the University and community sides.
“Penn and West Philadelphia’s futures are intertwined,” says Harkavy. “What happens to Penn will affect West Philly, and vice versa. I thought that doing the right thing was in Penn’s own interest, and the interest of the people of the neighborhood.”
At the core of the Netter Center’s mission is its concept of Academically Based Community Service, or ABCS. It uses courses at Penn to integrate service with research, teaching, and learning.
For instance, there is the “Community Physics Initiative,” taught by Larry Gladney, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor for Faculty Excellence and Associate Dean for Natural Sciences. The idea, Harkavy says, is for college students to be involved in learning physics by teaching it to high schoolers.
Then there’s Herman Beavers, a professor of English and Africana studies, who teaches “Performance in the African Diaspora.” Students in his class build relationships with West Philadelphia residents through the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, while studying August Wilson’s 20th Century Cycle together.
In “Urban Environments: Speaking About Lead in West Philadelphia,” Richard Pepino, a lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, teaches his students about the epidemiology of lead poisoning, the pathways of its exposure, and methods for community outreach and education. The Penn students engage local middle and high schoolers in exercises that measure lead exposures in neighborhood soil samples, and apply environmental research to assess lead poisoning risks in their homes from old paint and other sources.
“Using the ABCS approach for this course raises awareness of potential neuro-cognitive impacts from lead exposures to the West Philadelphia community,” says Pepino. “Our Penn students always find willing students from the School District that benefit from this ABCS experience, which often translates to reduced public health risks for young children in the community.”
ABCS courses at Penn run the gamut, touching numerous fields varying from music, to nursing, to engineering. When the Netter Center was officially established, there were four ABCS courses in effect. Today, it boasts 70, taught each academic year. During 2016-17, ABCS courses at Penn were offered across eight schools and 31 departments and programs, enrolling about 1,700 undergraduate and graduate students, with at least 50 standing and associated faculty involved.
“Penn is creating the citizens for tomorrow, and I think that the hands-on opportunity for learning that the Netter Center provides and facilitates benefits both the Penn students and the community members,” says Stacey Bennett, a Penn alumna and board chair of the Netter Center’s National Advisory Board. “Education in the future will be even more practical, and these types of courses provide real-world opportunities for students to go out and be better problem solvers and build a better future.”
Casey actually met his mentor through an ABCS course, when he was just a junior at University City High. Jeffrey Martín, then a Wharton student, and now a founder of a nonprofit in Atlanta, was paired with Casey by chance.
“I always thought Wharton students were rich and just out of touch with the world,” says Casey. “But this guy was everything outside of that. He’s black, from a poorer Atlanta community … he was asking me what I wanted to do, and I was like, ‘Man, after hearing about you, I want to go to Penn, too.’”
Martín helped Casey come up with a strategic plan for college. To get on Penn’s radar, Casey would have to get straight-A’s throughout the rest of high school, and maintain a 4.0 at Temple his freshman year.
“Me getting to Penn was a combination of luck and having to put in that work,” says Casey. “[Martín] helped me take a look at where I was and understand where I needed to improve so I could be where I needed to be.
“Before that, I would have never thought I would have been able to get into Penn,” Casey adds. “That may sound funny, considering my high school was right next door.”
If it weren’t for ABCS, it’s unlikely that Martín and Casey would have crossed paths. Enabling these types of relationships is precisely what ABCS is all about.
“The idea is to bring Penn together with the community in democratic partnership,” says Harkavy. “And the hope is to bring about change.”
Programs with purpose
Throughout the years, ABCS courses, and the research that’s been conducted by faculty and students within them, have spearheaded full-fledged programs, many of which are based at public schools throughout Philadelphia, with a particular focus on West Philadelphia.
One of the largest and most popular programs is the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, or AUNI for short. It was formed through Francis Johnston’s ABCS medical anthropology class, which was created in the ’90s to help build and sustain healthy practices in West Philadelphia—from nutritious eating to fitness.
AUNI now offers year-round learning opportunities—including cooking and gardening clubs and youth-run fruit stands—for more than 10,000 students at 20 public schools in West and South Philadelphia.
Other Netter Center partnership programs born from ABCS courses include the Penn Reading Initiative, a tutoring program for elementary school readers, and the Dr. Bernett L. Johnson, Jr. Sayre Health Center, a full-service, primary care health facility in West Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood. Others involve STEM education, athletics programs, college and career readiness initiatives, and much more.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the midst of teaching the very first ABCS courses, Harkavy, Benson, Johnston, and John Puckett, a professor in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), along with other Penn colleagues, helped develop a strategy called University-Assisted Community Schools (UACS).
Inspired predominantly by philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey’s work on schools as social centers, and developed with the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, these public schools—now considered the “hubs” for Penn’s community engagement and democratic development—would become another major component of the Netter Center.
“Our approach is university-assisted,” says Harkavy. “Not university-dominated, not university-controlled, not even just affiliated. We are assisting.”
The Netter Center considers Benjamin B. Comegys and Henry C. Lea elementary schools, and Sayre and West Philadelphia high schools as its most intensive UACS sites, and has recently grown to engage students and families from five other West Philadelphia schools through UACS programs. Penn provides academic, human, and material resources to them during the school day, after school, in the evenings, on Saturdays, and in the summer. Site directors employed by the Netter Center collaborate closely with each school and its community to determine activities that best serve their specific needs and interests. Students and volunteers involved in ABCS courses, as well as Netter Center programs, often work with the UACS sites, too.
“By working together with the community, we can make greater contributions to knowledge, research, teaching, and learning,” says Harkavy. “It’s in those partnerships that powerful learning and discovery takes place.”
The Netter Center is hoping to solve universal problems, such as poor schooling, inadequate health care, and poverty, by taking them on locally, first.
“We do the work elsewhere, but our first responsibility is here at home,” says Harkavy. “As Dewey said, ‘Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community.’”
From 1994 to 2004, the Netter Center received funding from foundations and the federal government to promote the replication of its UACS model. During that time, more than 20 higher educational institutions received funding to develop the UACS approach, and another 75 institutions were trained in the model.
But it wasn’t until a major 2007 endowment from Edward Netter, a Penn alumnus, and his wife Barbara, that the model was provided the potential to expand by the degree it is today.
In fact, since the Netter’s generous gift, the Netter Center has established a program to fund regional training centers on UACS in three-year cycles. In 2008, the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa became the first UACS site; followed by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in 2011; and University of Connecticut in 2014. The University of California, Los Angeles was selected as the fourth site and is beginning its work this fall.
In 2015, the Netter Center created a University-Assisted Community Schools Network, which consists of at least 70 higher education institutions, to share resources, best practices, and advance the work.
“Just as we have to learn from our community, we have to learn from other UACS adaption sites,” says Harkavy. “I say this often in talks I give: ‘Helping to create democratic communities isn’t rocket science—it is harder than rocket science.’ So sharing is absolutely essential.”
Engaged universities and academic medical centers are considered anchor institutions for communities, a notion Harkavy has substantially written and lectured about.
In 2008, the Netter Center published the “Anchor Institutions Toolkit: A Guide for Neighborhood Revitalization.” An Anchor Institutions Task Force (AITF), chaired by Harkavy, was later formed, and has since garnered 700 individual members, many of whom are slated to meet at the AITF annual conference from Oct. 26-27 in New York City.
The conference will include a book signing for the recently published “Knowledge for Social Change: Bacon, Dewey, and the Revolutionary Transformation of Research Universities in the Twenty-First Century,” written by Harkavy, Benson, Johnston, and Puckett, as well as GSE professor Matthew Hartley; Rita Hodges, assistant director of the Netter Center; and Joann Weeks, the Netter Center’s associate director. The book employs history, social theory, and the Netter Center’s contemporary case study to argue for fundamentally reshaping research universities to function as democratic, civic, and community engaged institutions.
“One of the significant issues in the world is the conditions of cities,” Harkavy says. “A university that helps to significantly solve cities’ problems and issues, that truly makes a deep, profound, continuous difference, will be the leading research university in the world.”
A bright future
Through a slew of Netter Center programs, Penn’s relationship with the West Philadelphia community continues to grow. It helps, too, that President Amy Gutmann has incorporated local community engagement into the University’s strategic vision—the Penn Compact 2020.
“Things in the community have changed dramatically,” says Harkavy. “Certainly it started with Sheldon Hackney, continued with Judith Rodin, but it’s just galloped in the recent period with Amy Gutmann. We are seen globally as a model anchor institution, not just for academic engagement, but for Penn’s institutional investment through economic inclusion, purchasing and hiring, and overall attitude toward the community.”
The Netter Center will continue to share the knowledge it’s gained with a 25th anniversary conference at Houston Hall from Nov. 16-17. The conference “Higher Education-Community Partnerships for Democracy and Social Change” will feature professors and administrators from across Penn, university presidents and academics spanning the globe, and panel sessions.
Harkavy says Penn is “uniquely situated” to be a leader in using education to improve the world.
After all, with the University’s Franklinian heritage, it’s in our core.
“The work we do fits Benjamin Franklin’s emphasis of working in the world to do good,” he says. “We are Franklin’s university, and what the Netter Center does fits exactly the themes that Franklin emphasized.”