Family School Partnership Award Winner Julia R. Masterman: Unifying Diverse Populations

At Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, there is a convergence of students from all around the city. Masterman has a unique position of being both a middle and high school, and students join the school community at different points. Because Masterman’s population includes students and families from every Philadelphia neighborhood, the student body is racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically quite diverse. Over the past several months, the School Advisory Council (SAC) at Masterman has thought about how to bring many different types of families together in the school community and worked hard to make this come to fruition.

From left to right: Family Engagement Liaison Melanie Oeun-Greenhalgh, SAC Member and Home and School President Barbara Dallao, Principal Jessica Brown, Superintendent William Hite, and Robert F. Smith, Region Vice President of Community Investment, Comcast.

Masterman principal, Ms. Jessica Brown, explains one approach the school took: representatives went out to communities to advertise and share information about the school. SAC student representative, Alfredo Pratico, shares that a recent SAC initiative has been to reach out to every school in the city to give all students equal opportunities to apply. As word is spreading, there has been a more diverse pool of applicants who have been interested in Masterman– students from different neighborhoods, different family contexts, and a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

The diversity committee within Masterman’s SAC has been brainstorming other ways that they could reach more families, including those whose first language is not English. Principal Brown shared that the Chinese Bilingual Counseling Assistant at Masterman has been very helpful for further fostering relationships with the Chinese community. Despite a potential language barrier for these parents, the school has hosted sessions and coffee hours for Chinese parents to get to know the school better and have their questions answered. The administration is also planning for another potential session for Chinese families to learn about the college admissions process.

Ms. Barbara Dallao, a parent who has been involved in Masterman’s SAC and Home and School Association, says, “Masterman is always challenged to be truly welcoming and truly reaching out to many people.” In an effort meet this goal, the HSA and SAC at Masterman have hosted many events for families and are planning for more in the coming months. In the past, the HSA has hosted an international potluck family dinner with cultural performances and guest speakers who have shared about immigration, a rooftop get-together for new families to come and learn about the school and socialize, a new student orientation, book fairs, auctions, and spring and fall clean-up days.

Ms. Dallao says, “When the Masterman community comes together, there is so much representation…When everyone sits together, when there is collaboration and an interest in hearing what others want to say, you can make huge strides because of that diversity.” The SAC is planning to use the funds from the Family School Partnership Award to host a dinner for new families in September, in an effort to welcome and integrate them into the school community from the get-go. Programs, clubs, and activities within school would be promoted at this welcoming dinner and families would have a chance to meet and greet key members of the school including the administration, club leaders, and counselors.

Principal Brown emphasizes the importance of this personal contact: The families are “not just coming to Masterman and going right into classes, but…they’ll have opportunities to meet each other, faculty, and meet the administrative team.” Ms. Dallao explains that when she was a new parent years ago, there were many nuanced cultural things that she wanted to know about like where the least crowded pickup spot for students is or how students can keep their things and assignments organized in fifth and sixth grades. Because it’s not always easy to find out what your child might need at school to succeed or even school norms and cultures, the SAC has been advocating for ways to meet families’ needs.

Not only is there a move to unify families at Masterman, but the administration and SAC members are mindful to also bring the diverse student body together. Principal Brown explains that with a large school of around 1,200 students, she finds a need to unify the students within the school as well because she wants it to be a “unified, whole-family feel versus two separate schools between the middle school and high-school.” One way that this merge happens at Masterman is through an advisory time once a month where middle schoolers and high schoolers group together and are charged with an event or an activity to participate in. The events vary from poetry slams, a treasure hunt around the school, games, and more. Because these advisory times stay consistent until graduation, students are able to recognize those they work with, and there are more opportunities for relationships to build and indirect or direct mentoring to happen. Alfredo also vouches for grade-specific events that can bring together different grades and families. He explains that relationships get closer within grades, and events like a class barbecue can help smaller groups of families build relationships with each other.

Another new school project Masterman started this year is called “One Book, One Masterman.” The administration selected a book called Refugee by Alan Gratz for all students and families to read. The project promotes community building through reading a shared book that members of the school community can then discuss with one another. Both small and big projects are aligned with an overall vision of building community and highlighting diverse perspectives.

Photo credit:

The school also promotes a variety of ways to be involved. Ms. Dallao says that it’s important to have a range of activities that can make people feel comfortable to join even if they can’t make a huge time commitment. Principal Brown emphasizes that family engagement doesn’t look just one way; it can be working with a child on a project at home, attending events at the school, connecting with teachers or counselors through email, filling out parent surveys, and so on. Principal Brown says, “Family engagement is not within school walls. Oftentimes, people don’t even recognize that they’re already participating.” Ms. Dallao also adds that sometimes what hinders parents from volunteering is the thought that they don’t have anything to offer, but she says, “People believe that they don’t have the right skill set to volunteer, but that’s completely false…If you have a child in a school, you have the right skill set…You are valuable in the community.”

From a student’s perspective, Alfredo says that he believes that something that makes parent engagement special at Masterman is that there is a high level of student buy-in. Many students, especially middle schoolers want their parents to chaperone trips and be involved in the school. Alfredo believes that if students enjoy being at school, they’ll transfer things from school to home. He makes the point that oftentimes parents only get involved when something serious happens, but he feels that “it’s important that you’re there consistently, not just when there’s a problem or when something goes wrong,” but to take part in small ways to help impact the decisions at school. From the student’s point of view, he believes that even high-school students want their parents involved, even if it’s as simple as attending an event.

Over the years, Masterman has been striving to have open arms and welcome all members of their school community and has taken many steps to show parents and students that they are valuable and their voices need to be heard at school. We celebrate Masterman for striving to be a community that can be inclusive of all voices – for both parents and students!