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The Penn Alexander School

by Sheila A. Sydnor, PAS principal and Nancy Streim, GSE associate dean

In June 2005, the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, commonly called the Penn Alexander School (PAS), graduated its first eighth grade class. We would like to take this opportunity to update the Penn community about some of the remarkable things taking place at the school.

The story of the creation of Penn Alexander has received a great deal of attention: how the University, the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the local community worked together to establish a university-assisted neighborhood public school in West Philadelphia; how the school was named for Dr. Sadie Alexander, who received four degrees from Penn on her way to a series of historic achievements as a lawyer and civil rights leader; and how a five-acre campus in the heart of a residential neighborhood between 42nd and 43rd and Locust and Spruce Streets was planned and constructed to be a resource for the entire community (Almanac October 15, 2002).

What was at times a contentious community debate has resulted in a thriving public school that is fulfilling its mission to enrich University City and present a national model for university-assisted public schools.

After opening with kindergarten and first grade in 2001 and gradually phasing in new grades, Penn Alexander is now a full K-8 school serving nearly 500 students, along with two classrooms of Head Start as the school’s preK program. All students must live in the attendance area established by the Philadelphia Board of Education, which means that the student body reflects West Philadelphia’s rich ethnic diversity: 53% African American, 23% White, 13% Asian, 7% Hispanic and 4% Other. School data also show that 19% of PAS students are international, and 19% come from Penn-affiliated families—children of faculty, staff, and students.

Boys in First Grade Boys in Fifth Grade
Above: First graders in 2001 and as fifth graders in 2005

Being an outstanding neighborhood public school is central to Penn Alexander’s vision. PAS embraces its place as part of the community. Its dedication to that role has been evident from the earliest planning stages, even in the choice of school leadership. When the time came to hire a principal for the newly created school, it is significant that Penn and the School District selected a West Philadelphia native and Penn alumna with over 25 years’ experience in Philadelphia schools (Almanac July 17, 2001). 

From the very beginning, the school was planned to serve as a center of community activity, hosting social, educational, artistic, and recreational programs for the local public. The school opens in the evening for recreation, arts activities and adult education workshops such as personal finance, home buying and parenting. Given this commitment to the “public” aspect of public school, PAS is particularly proud of being selected by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation for the “Schools as Centers for Community” Honor Society.

The school’s design, which features a three-story atrium with amphitheater seating, a rain garden, an outdoor science classroom, art and music studios  and a library with multimedia and broadcast facilities, has won awards from the American Institute of Architects, the Urban Land Institute, and the Schuylkill Action Network (Almanac December 16, 2003).

Penn Alexander School
The Penn Alexander School’s facade at 4209 Spruce Street.

Penn Alexander’s rigorous instruction is built upon the best educational research, and the school uses curriculum materials designated as “exemplary” by the Department of Education and National Science Foundation. Besides the core academic subjects, students at Penn Alexander have specialized programs in art, music and technology. A wide selection of electives is offered at the middle grades, and many students participate in the broad array of after-school clubs including literary magazine, student government, sports, newspaper, games club, math enrichment and design technology. Nearly 100 students take instrumental music lessons at school. This year the school is preparing its first school-wide musical production, Annie Jr., which will involve many Penn and community supporters. Watch for it in May! 

Penn’s partnership with PAS is a campus-wide endeavor. The University subsidizes the school with an operating contribution of $1000 per student—an amount that helps to keep the student-teacher ratio low (17:1 for kindergarten and 23:1 for grades 1-8). In addition, Penn has participated in raising additional funding, including a grant from the William Penn Foundation to support the school’s community programming and the creation of the PAS Endowment, seeded with gifts from former Penn president Judith Rodin and others. The University also maintains the lush green space surrounding the school and cooperates with the community and the school in developing the grounds for use by students and University City families.

A large number of Penn schools, departments, and programs are working with PAS to enrich the students’ educational experiences. Penn GSE is closely involved, contributing expertise and hands-on effort to PAS by providing Penn student teachers in the classrooms, professional development courses and workshops for staff, and enriched curriculum in literacy, math and science as well as an integrated global studies program at the middle grades. Penn students from all across the campus serve as interns, tutors, pen pals, and leaders of after-school clubs. Penn faculty develop curriculum units and assist PAS teachers with instruction. Penn organizations provide reduced-rate or complimentary tickets and services to PAS students. Every grade at PAS has its own unique Penn partnership, and all students benefit from the depth and breadth of the school’s collaboration with Penn. The school is grateful for the support of the Kelly Writers House, Department of Music, School of Social Policy and Practice, School of Dental Medicine, Annenberg Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, Penn Museum, School of Nursing, Penn Law, Penn Bookstore, Weiss Tech House, WXPN, Department of Recreation, Center for Community Partnerships, Community and Government Affairs and many others.

An engaged parent body is another key component to the school’s success. In addition to the active Home and School Association, over 250 parents have signed up to contribute their time and expertise through the school’s Volunteer Registry.

The fruits of this rich model of a university-assisted neighborhood public school can be seen in the exceptional accomplishments of the students. PAS has achieved Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and is recognized by the School District of Philadelphia as a Best Practices School. The most recent Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) scores show that the school outperformed the state and the district in reading and math. 68% of 8th grade students scored at or above grade level in reading, with 73% at or above grade level in math. In the first eighth grade graduating class, 72% of the students were admitted to selective public and private high schools.

PAS students have also garnered a host of honors, including prizes at the city-wide Carver Science Fair, two Benjamin Banneker Awards for outstanding achievement in math by minority students, publication in the 2004 Young American Poetry Digest, and a 7th-place finish statewide in the First In Math on-line math enrichment program.

Such excellent results point to the success of the idea behind the school, and people in the education field around the world have taken notice. PAS was featured at the first national conference on university-assisted schools in 2003, and has been named a “gold standard” school by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Relishing its role as a model, PAS regularly receives visitors from around the world, and Penn is frequently called upon to assist other universities to initiate similar projects.

As we approach the five-year mark, we are pleased with our progress. Certainly there is more to do and we hope you will continue to support the school along its way.  To learn more, please come to one of the monthly First Tuesday tours or visit us at www.phila.k12.pa.us/schools/pennalexander.



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 12, November 15, 2005


November 15, 2005
Volume 52 Number 12


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