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Community Organizes to Save Neighborhood School in Philadelphia

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E.M. Stanton Elementary School, a neighborhood public school in Philadelphia, recently survived an attempt to close it down.

It was spared thanks to a community of parents, educators, students and volunteers who mounted an effective and passionate nine-month campaign to keep it open, according to The Notebook, which calls itself an independent voice for people who are interested in Philadelphia Public Schools.

With eight consecutive years of making "adequate yearly progress," Stanton's academic performance certainly measured up. But the Philadelphia School District expressed concern about the school's low enrollment (with 255 students in 2011-12) and crumbling infrastructure. It also took the position that Stanton's students could attend nearby schools.

Supporters of Stanton (SOS) strenuously disagreed. They conveyed how much their little school, with its thriving multicultural arts and after-school programs, generated success, with an overall School Performance Index of 2 (on a scale of 1 being the best and 10, the worst.)

The Notebook's account of their opposition to the proposed closing is like reading a textbook case of how parents and communities can mobilize to advocate for a particular school's viability.

Among the keys to the community's organizing success:

Start from Day One: School was out when the Stanton community learned that their school was on the chopping block. They sprang into action immediately.

Reach out: Bainbridge House, a faith-based cooperative located just blocks from the school, was vested in helping keep it open. Weekly meetings were held there, and included a cross-section of people involved in the outcome of the campaign.

Tell a story: Buoyed by a success at saving the school in 2003—where the thrust of the story was "give us a chance"—organizers chose another story to share: "We did what you wanted. We succeeded. Now let us survive."

Show and tell: Communicating the story is vital. SOS blogged on a website where they posted videos featuring students performing, teachers and the principal explaining the school's value, and volunteers weighing in on the issue, too.

Present new ideas: The SOS team listened to the district's concerns, and came up with a 37-page counter-proposal addressing them. Among the suggestions: adding another grade or creating an autism-support program. School officials appreciated this proactive and positive response.

Now that the school has been spared, some of the activists are paying it forward by participating in other public school-supportive events, like a recent "mock bake sale," delivering cookies to city council members to convey that selling baked goods will never produce enough dollars to cover the deficits in funding for public schools.

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