Many people think of schools as insular communities that have their own systems, agendas, and cultures. At Stephen Girard School, we have witnessed what can happen when a school begins to incorporate its surrounding community and partners with neighborhood organizations. Stephen Girard School started a partnership with Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a local synagogue. Both Girard School and Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel have seen success and mutual benefit in the ways that this partnership has grown.
Two years ago, Ms. Rosalie Kurz, who leads the partnership on the synagogue’s end, wanted to introduce a project to the synagogue that could help make a difference in the community. The vision of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel is to make the world a better place and to help the world, so the members of the synagogue wanted to live out the vision by collaborating with a local school. There was a woman who happened to have a connection to Stephen Girard School, so she contacted the school, and the rest has been history.
Both Ms. Kurz and Principal Leah Coleman realized that in order for this partnership to be effective, they had to construct a plan—together. Principal Coleman and Ms. Kurz began to meet more frequently to talk about ways that the volunteers could help. Ms. Kurz expressed that “working with Ms. Coleman is wonderful because she is so supportive and encouraging and has such open communication.” Principal Coleman expressed what kind of school goals, specifically in literacy, she wanted to focus on, and Ms. Kurz was able to express ways that the volunteers wanted to help. Principal Coleman says that “something [she] really values about the relationship…is that the volunteers really buy into [the] school vision. Anyone who’s really going to be a true support has to understand where we’re going.”
Upon discussing the goals of both the school and the synagogue volunteers, the volunteers began to assist in many literacy efforts at Girard. They came together and discussed amongst themselves what to do with the kids based on each person’s personality and talents. Six of the volunteers met with all of the fourth grade classes to sing with them, read to them, teach about public speaking, and help them take out books. Members of the synagogue donated hundreds of books to help stock up Girard’s library, so these volunteers were also able to start helping out in the library more frequently. The volunteers have sorted through and revitalized the collection of books in Girard’s library.
The benefits of this partnership truly is mutual. Because of the growing library collection as well as the presence of these enthusiastic volunteers, many students have grown in their excitement for reading and in frequenting the library. The library ladies have helped students explore books that they’re actually interested in rather than feeling peer pressure to do whatever people around them are doing. For Girard students, many are more confident even in public speaking and standing before their peers. For the volunteers, there have been invaluable opportunities for them to step out of their comfort zones and step into the worlds of others. The volunteers love witnessing students’ reading levels increase and knowing that they are bringing joy and making a difference in the lives of these students.
Moving into the future, both Principal Coleman and Ms. Kurz want to see the community-school partnership that they have strengthen. Both parties share that the best way to have an effective partnership is to be transparent with one another, work to build trust, spend time communicating, and be flexible when changes come. Ms. Kurz especially appreciates Principal Coleman’s open-mindedness: “She is very open-minded to our ideas and what we desire…Because there was a willingness from the school of trust, there was room for support and trust to be open to new ideas.” This type of school-community relationship has strengthened not just the basic academics and grades for students but has really enhanced the students’ deeper love for reading. Principal Coleman concludes: “I’m just very grateful for the ladies and just their willingness to make connections and build relationships with the students, and I think that’s the heart of why the program is successful.” The unified focus on students and their growth has allowed the partnership between Stephen Girard Elementary School and Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel to flourish!