Penn’s role in West Philadelphia has always been complicated—existing both within it and yet distinctly apart from it. 

The history of University–community relations is long and complex, as Penn has long acted as a landlord, legislator, and landmark for a neighborhood in change. Examples of Penn's impact in West Philly are innumerable, touching areas of policing, urban planning, and neighborhood funding. The University City district didn’t even exist until the 1950s when Penn coined the name as part of an urban–renewal and gentrification effort. This power can, and should, be yielded for the benefit of the neighborhood's inhabitants. As a research institution with a $20.5 billion endowment located in a neighborhood with a median income of $28,433, Penn has a unique responsibility to support its surrounding community.

Penn primarily works to bolster local communities through the Civic House and Netter Center for Community Partnerships, supporting a set of University–Assisted Community Schools (UACS), or public schools, throughout the city. The troubled history of volunteer programs like these reveals holes in their impact, namely Penn attempting to solve systemic issues by bringing in undertrained college students as tutors, rather than paying Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) to the city. Even though volunteer–based programs at Penn are largely bandaids for the harms the University has caused, they have helped local schools shoulder the burden of learning loss.

“Our intention isn’t to reach as many schools as possible. It’s more to integrate and aggregate our resources,” explains Anna Balfanz (C ‘19), the Netter Center’s current Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) Coordinator. “With the community school, it’s this idea that a school should be a hub for a full range of integrated supports that humans need: academic, mental health, physical health, wellness, social services.” A school should also be a place where everyone can obtain their needs, she says, not just students and staff. 

When the COVID–19 pandemic hit, Penn successfully moved classes online, but many of these community partnership programs had to halt operations entirely. “For the most part, most tutor and tutee pairs just stopped tutoring because we didn't expect it to happen,” remembers West Philadelphia Tutoring Project board member Katie Muir (C ‘22). CityStep Penn, a community service organization teaching dance to Philadelphia youth, was forced to cancel their spring 2020 show. “Since the students were just getting into virtual learning, we weren't able to continue to meet with them virtually. Their schools were just figuring that out for themselves during the springtime,” said Ally Margolis (C ‘22), one of CityStep’s chairs.

Unable to continue working in local schools, ABCS courses reoriented their curriculum. Case in point: EAS 242. Also known as “Energy Education in Philadelphia Schools,” EAS–242 was a brand new course launched in spring 2020 where students partnered with the Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia to create a teaching plan about energy efficiency for middle and high schoolers. Students were only able to teach in one classroom before being sent home indefinitely after spring break. Still, coordinators and class members managed to find novel ways to make an impact.

“That semester, we actually had the teachers Zoom in instead to the Penn student courses and work with the Penn students in refining these newly created lesson plans,” said Balfanz, the ABCS Coordinator. “And they really co–designed them, which is not something we've been doing before.” 

After a summer of planning, almost all ABCS courses that worked with UACS were able to continue their partnerships virtually throughout the 2020–21 school year. In some cases, virtual volunteering proved to be advantageous. “People would do more than they were doing in person...There would be more back and forth with the teacher, like over phone call, text, or email just because of that new openness with communication,” Balfanz remembers. “And some of it actually helped translate to this year.”

With physical programs like CityStep, however, the transition to virtual teaching was much more difficult. During the 2020–21 school year, CityStep shifted from their usual two 45–minute sessions per week to one virtual 30–minute one. Despite the change, student–dance teacher relationships still managed to flourish. “We got to know more about our kids during virtual times, specifically things they’re interested in, since we had such a short amount of time together. I learned that the students loved anime, and I really need to incorporate those types of songs into our dances,” Margolis laughs. 

Om Manghani (C ‘24), a general assignments reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian, began working with Community School Student Partnerships (CSSP), a student organization under the Netter Center, last fall. Although he was stuck in California, Manghani had the opportunity to mentor a seventh and eighth grade classroom at Andrew Hamilton High School. “Once a week for three hours, I would go into the Zoom room and be of support in any ways that I could,” he says.

But the following semester, when Om and other Penn students returned to campus, the School District of Philadelphia continued to operate virtually. While he wishes that he had the opportunity to meet with his students in person, Manghani was able to appreciate many of the challenges that virtual tutoring provided. “I feel like we’ve become more flexible in our mindset, thinking about our role as a way to support in any way we can, like wanting to just be there for our students and be there for our schools regardless of the situation,” Manghani says.

Some students, like Hakiem Ellison (C ‘22), took the initiative to found new community service programs during the pandemic. Ellison co–founded a program called Robeson Writes, which provides writing support to Paul Robeson High School students. Ellison talked with the principal and other school staff, with consensus settling on a targeted goal: to prepare students on writing for the literature portion of the Keystone Exams, a graduation requirement and college readiness measure for high school students in Pennsylvania. Ellison says the program has made significant progress toward that goal, an achievement he’s proud of despite the challenges of pandemic–induced learning losses.

Still, the pandemic isn’t the "great equalizer" some initially believed it to be, democratizing access to educational materials previously resigned to well–funded school districts. Within Philadelphia alone, COVID–19 exacerbated the city’s digital divide, with students lacking stable internet access, missing lessons, or going entirely ghost. 

Before the city’s PHLConnectED program provided free broadband access to low–income households within city limits, 30% of public school learners lacked internet. 16% still do, according to the recently published “Connecting Philadelphia” report. Many of those students were initially told to sit in school parking lots until their homework was completed while the school district figured out how to make remote learning more accessible.

Tackling the digital divide doesn’t even begin to address the other problems that make remote learning reinforce class and racial educational divides. A 2021 McKinsey report found that learning losses were most acute in schools that predominantly taught students of color, reinforcing how statewide school funding laws force BIPOC–serving districts to constantly play catch–up. Penn’s ABCS and CSSP offerings play an important role by enriching underfunded schools during a time where the odds are stacked against their students. But, these programs can’t do it all.

“While for college students, virtual learning isn’t great, we’re able to do it … [But] for younger students, the comparison between virtual learning and in–person learning is so much more vast and so much more important for kids, especially if they can be there and be safe,” says Margolis, the CityStep chair. 

In some ways, COVID–19 has fostered a culture of collaboration, flexibility, and compassion. Nonetheless, the pandemic has also unveiled that the relationship between West Philadelphia schools and Penn is still the same. Penn students are temporary residents of the city, and their impact on local schools will wax and wane. As the University fails to contend with how it can financially support the West Philadelphia community, it’s important for Penn students who choose to volunteer to ensure they make this relationship less transactional.

“Something we stress at CSSP is the value of a mutually beneficial partnership. Mentoring isn't kind of this transactional relationship where we put ourselves as Penn students on a pedestal and think of ourselves as greater," Manghani, a CSSP mentor, says.