Family School Partnership Award Winner: James J. Sullivan School

When Renee Morley became the principal of James J. Sullivan School in 2013, she knew there was work to be done with family and community engagement. She made a commitment to the work and poured resources into making her vision a reality. Five years later, Principal Morley has achieved her goals and then some with the help of committed staff, families and community partners, which earned her school the Family School Partnership Award!

Principal Morley has been working with the School District of Philadelphia for almost 30 years. She began as a special education teacher and has spent the last 18 years as an elementary school principal, with this being her fifth year at Sullivan, which is located in Lower Northeast Philadelphia. When she arrived at the school, she explains “parent engagement and involvement was something that I seriously needed because I had a disconnect between the school and the community, so it was a challenge that I put on myself as the principal.”

Sullivan staff and parents accepts the Family School Partnership Award.

One of her first steps in that challenge was to set aside future money in the school’s budget to hire a Community Relations Liaison (CRL), something she felt very strongly about and ultimately paid off tremendously. CRL Luis Oquendo has been with a school for a couple of years now and helps with everything involving community outreach—anything from sending out phone blasts, to organizing family meetings, to developing surveys, to greeting families in the school yard.

She also began developing a School Advisory Council, which she had had some exposure to at a previous school, but she explains, “As the district progressed, so did I.” She, like many principals building a SAC, struggled to get the momentum going for Sullivan’s SAC.

“I didn’t give up trying, I would still hold my meetings, I would still invite my community, keep going after people saying please, please! I need your help!” Principal Morley says. “I would still hold the meeting even if only one parent showed up.”

Luckily for her, at the beginning of last year she had the help of Mr. Oquendo and Joy McIntosh, Sullivan’s Family Engagement Liaison. Ms. McIntosh explains that she was able to organize a few parents, like parent and SAC Secretary Victoria Trower, who were already involved in the school and ask them to help recruit others to get more engaged in the school community.

Ms. Trower had made similar observations as Principal Morley when she first enrolled her children in Sullivan—that family engagement was low—but she was excited to have a platform like SAC to devote her time and efforts to improving the school community. This all worked out very quickly, Ms. McIntosh explains. “Within the second month of the 2016-2017 school year, and the first month of rolling SACs out to schools,” she says, “Sullivan Elementary had a full team ready and eager to give input and make school improvements.”

Several young female students dance with their fathers in a school gymnasium with green walls and red ribbon hanging.

Sullivan’s SAC planned and hosted a Daddy Daughter Dance in February.

Since then, the SAC and family engagement at Sullivan overall has continued to blossom. They have worked on getting more volunteers in the school on a regular basis, have opened a family resource center for families to utilize computers and get help with things like job applications or public assistance, and have held a number of school and community events.

Ms. Trower is especially grateful for the support she has from Principal Morley and Assistant Principal Lawrence to carry out families’ visions for the school, as well as offering employment opportunities to family members if they are qualified and interested.

“Being fully aware of the socioeconomic background in Wissinoming/Frankford and giving parents an opportunity to have gainful employment with the school district is not a normal occurrence,” Ms. Trower explains. “Having two people at the top who were committed to making Sullivan a place where parents could come in and thought parent engagement was the biggest piece missing—I think it’s been one of the biggest turnarounds we’ve had in the past two years.”

Principal Morley has noticed a much stronger turnout for school events, but she argues that measuring parental involvement and engagement is much more than that.

“Of course you can say how many people attend meetings, but I’ve learned through experience that it’s not a matter of how many people come to a meeting but how many parents are involved in their child’s academics,” she says. “Are kids completing their homework? Are parents out and about in the community talking positively about the school?”

A specific point of pride, she notes, was at a recent town hall meeting held by PA House Representative Jason Dawkins, where not one complaint was mentioned about the school.

The team continues to plan for the future of family and community engagement at Sullivan. Right now they are working towards building Academic Parent Teacher Teams, a new initiative in the District to get families more involved in their child’s learning, as well as assisting with improving the school’s climate and culture through the “Leader in Me” program.

Principal Morley argues that this kind of work is not impossible and is happy all of her team’s hard work is paying off.

“Now,” she says, “I get to sit back and enjoy!”