Reinventing Service

“True religion does not draw men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.” —William Penn

The Center for Public Purpose was established in 2013, a formalization of decades of work and dedication by social studies teacher Jim Ballengee Hon. 1689 and colleagues to establish meaningful community partnerships and energize service learning, turning it from a “nice after-school activity” into a vigorous exercise in public purpose.

Alyson Goodner and Sharon Ahram, respectively the new director and the assistant director of the Center for Public Purpose (CfPP) since 2016, have dug even deeper in the last two years to embed public purpose into the pre-K to 12 academic curriculum, develop community partnerships and boost student achievement.

Today, the CfPP office still hums with activity and discussion, the thrum of energized students and adults. What is different is the expansion of ways students and adults can engage with the center—increasing participation among students, faculty and parents—and a renewed emphasis on the co-equal relationship between the school and partners.

Quickly upon arrival, Goodner and Ahram worked with stakeholders to revise the center’s mission:

The Center for Public Purpose engages Penn Charter students in community-based work by addressing some of the most pressing social issues in the greater Philadelphia area.The CfPP’s work aligns with Penn Charter’s Quaker values and curriculum and creates structures that inspire students to take ownership of their own learning experience. Through this process, students will gain the skills and competencies to live lives that make a difference.

They also clarified the frame of mind, and heart, students should bring to public purpose work. And they articulated the intellectual and emotional benefits students could derive from the engagement:


Constructive Listening: Students listen to understand another’s experience and perspective rather than to simply respond.

Intellectual Humility: Students are open to new ideas and are receptive to new sources of evidence.

Lifelong Learning: Students seek formal and informal learning opportunities to ask questions, find answers and foster continuous development and revelation.

Creative Problem Solving: Students see possibilities in problems and use their skills and resources to develop multiple solutions.

Civic Responsibility: Students recognize their own abilities and believe they can have significant positive impact on the world.

They have established new partnerships, and strengthened longstanding partnerships.

“Our relationships with new organizations are, mostly, side-by-side partnerships,” said Goodner. This emphasis means students and clients are on equal footing, with everyone involved contributing their perspective, abilities and experiences.

Long-standing service traditions such as divisional days of service and bake sales for charity remain, and students across the divisions, and sometimes parents, engage across the city on those projects.

“We still visit St. Francis Inn and serve meals,” Goodner said. “That’s deeply important work, and St. Francis has a need for that activity. The addition of new partnerships, where we are employing the side-by-side model, expands and diversifies our portfolio of service opportunities and further connects Penn Charter students to the community.”

Today, the CfPP uses cocurricular work with faculty in all three divisions, extracurricular activities such as Days of Service and after-school service opportunities, and a community incubator to engage students, alumni, families and faculty in public purpose work.


The heart of extracurricular programming continues to be the Upper School Service Council, which provides opportunities for students to collaborate with others to address social issues within the greater community.

Andrea Guillen, a senior and a council co-clerk, said the council works to plan “discussions, activities and projects for the council that revolve around issues facing the Philadelphia community, the role of service at Penn Charter, and our place in the broader community.”

In addition to their organizing function, council members engage in community service and volunteer projects around the city, encouraging their peers to do the same.

“We try our best to make sure that the service we do is fun and motivating,” said co-clerk and senior Rachel Zipin. “This year we decided to make Service Council meetings more interactive by having one of our meetings focus on learning about a particular issue, and the second meeting be more focused on hands-on work.” As an example, Zipin cited devoting one October meeting to learning about and discussing food insecurity and the next meeting preparing sandwiches for a local nonprofit.

“I enjoy being a co-clerk because it allows me to combine my passion for serving others and improving Penn Charter’s contributions to the broader community, and it has allowed me to develop valuable leadership and organizational skills,” said Guillen.

Cognizant of students’ full schedules, and in keeping with Penn Charter’s Strategic Vision goal to “reimagine the use of time,” the CfPP has found creative ways to engage everyone in service.

Student-athletes often attend class, activities and athletic practice between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. But, working with the CfPP, students and coaches have found ways to include service in practice, or maintain a relationship with a nonprofit organization throughout the season. [See Spring 2018 issue of Penn Charter magazine for stories on athletes and public purpose: “Athletes Driven to Service” about the Enable Basketball Tournament and “Passion Project: Sharing Love of Lacrosse” about PC girls lacrosse players introducing the sport to young girls in a nearby public school.]


In the shifts Goodner and Ahram have made to the CfPP, most notably the duo is taking the ideas and principles of public purpose to where students and faculty are most—in the classroom. The goal is to have public purpose connections to every class, something still in progress.

Goodner and Ahram have shared the mission as well as the skills and competencies in formal presentations at faculty meetings and in presentations in PC’s Teaching & Learning Center.

“We want to meet teachers where they are in their interest in incorporating public purpose into their curriculum,” said Goodner.

“Connections look different in each grade. What are your students interested in? What are they doing in class? How can we support learning?” Ahram continued.

When working with faculty on their course curriculum, Ahram and the teacher review multiple questions. “What resources can we offer the class? How can we connect with the community? How do we have learning happen outside the confines of the classroom? What are the resources that exist within Philadelphia and the nearby community that can be a place of learning and growth for our students?” Ahram said.

When they work with faculty, Goodner said, "the public purpose dimension is not in addition to what is being taught. We take what the teachers already are covering and approach the content through the lens of pressing issues in Philadelphia and the world.”



In addition to students, the CfPP supports alumni, families and faculty in research, design and/or implementation of Penn Charter public purpose initiatives.

This third area of CfPP work is broad. Penn Charter has continued its partnership in the

Allegheny West Consortium, meeting with nearby public schools to share experiences and to do professional development together. The CfPP, in partnership with the PC Office of Diversity and Inclusion, has supported students returning from the Anti- Defamation League and the People of Color conferences to share their revelations and their desire to learn how to facilitate difficult conversations. Responding to student- driven interest in social entrepreneurship, the CfPP advises QuakeMakers, an Upper School club that hosted a multi-school Shark Tank-style competition last year. [See Spring 2018 issue of Penn Charter magazine, “QuakeMakers Pitch Their Innovations”]

Goodner and Ahram welcome all inquiries and are ready to offer their support, facilitate connections with local organizations, and especially to help connect to individuals with more expertise.


An observer could look at many CfPP initiatives and projects and wonder: Is it an academic pursuit? Is it about community impact? Is it the expression of a student passion?

It is all three. Service at Penn Charter is ingrained in academic pursuit. Service is about listening to the community and working with the community to achieve impact. The best of teaching and learning is about helping students discover their passions.

That integration, fast becoming the norm and less the exception at Penn Charter, is why the CfPP has attracted the attention of peer schools eager to discover the passion behind public purpose at Penn Charter.

It originated with William Penn. The Center for Public Purpose is simply reinventing classic.



Second and 10th Grade Build Peace Benches

Students in Monique Durso’s second grade class and Alyson Goodner’s 10th grade Quakerism class met weekly to discuss the history of Quakerism and what nonviolence means to Quakers.

Their discussions focused on the query Head of School Darryl J. Ford posed when he announced the Peace Testimony as the theme for the 2017-2018 year. His query: “How can we be active peacemakers?”

Many of the students attended kindergarten at PC and remembered the Peace Table, a hallowed place where children could meet to talk through disagreements. The memory inspired students to design outdoor Peace Benches.

Their design placed the benches in a hexagon, connecting to the curriculum in two ways: the shape mirrored the honeycombs of the beehives second graders learn about from Joel Eckel, and the hexagon has the equal angles students in both divisions learn about in math class. The second and 10th graders manufactured the benches in the IdeaLab.

The benches can be arranged as an outdoor classroom—or moved to suit individuals needing to work something out.

“The parent and OPC communities have experience and expertise to share with our students and larger Penn Charter community,” said Goodner. “We welcome anyone who wants to be involved to join us on campus or via conference calls to share their narratives and reflections on their work.”



Third Grade Designs Hurricane-Resistant Housing

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, the class of 2027, then in third grade, came to school with questions about the disaster.

Their teachers encouraged the student-led discussions and desire to help, and called upon the CfPP to support the students in learning more about philanthropy, disaster aid and organizations doing good work to help in recovery after Maria. The class decided to direct the proceeds from its annual knitted-goods sale to four organizations engaged in recovery work.

In the course of discussions, one student asked, “Why can’t we build hurricane-proof houses?”

Enter Lower School technology coordinator Dan Stahl and IdeaLab coordinator Corey Kilbane. Working together, the classroom teachers, the CfPP and the IdeaLab coordinators considered what students already would be covering in math and other subjects and created a design challenge for the class. Andrew Evans OPC ’98, who designed houses post- Katrina, talked with students via Skype about his designs, and the third graders set out to design and test houses made of simple materials that would stand up to high winds, high water and other hurricane conditions.

Once satisfied with their designs, students practiced their presentation skills and formally shared their thinking and results to a panel of faculty and Upper School students.



Upper School English: East Meets West through Community Dialogue

Sara Moses, in preparation for her new Upper School elective, East Meets West, brainstormed with Sharon Ahram about potential speakers and off-campus trips that would enhance the course.

Together, Ahram and Moses went less than a mile off campus, to one of the largest Islamic communities in Philadelphia.

“We talk about global experiences, but students can go out the back door and learn,” said Ahram.

Moses and Ahram met Quantella Azeez, owner of Modern Hijab dress shop, who helped set up a field trip for the students that included visits to the Germantown Masjid and school, a Muslim-owned barbershop and a halal food truck. They brought diverse speakers to the class, a professor emeritus of Arabic and comparative literature, and Akbar Houssain, a Penn Law student who immigrated to the United States from Saudi Arabia two days before 9/11. PC students also Skyped with students from Penn’s Muslim Student Association and Karim Zagha, a Ramallah Friends School graduate who spent his sophomore year at Penn Charter.




Director Alyson Goodner OPC ’96 brings to her new position a background in social

entrepreneurship and innovation in education that she honed at Princeton, Oxford and in her own startup. That expertise, combined with her knowledge of Penn Charter, expansive ideas, networking mindset and seemingly boundless energy, make her a natural fit as director of the Center for Public Purpose.

Goodner meets regularly with Penn Charter community partners and with faculty to further the mission of the center and to strengthen opportunities for PC students. She thinks big, but also works at the ground level with faculty to develop curriculum in traditional subjects, and also empathy, responsibility, intellectual curiosity and problem solving skills in students. Goodner teaches sections of 10th grade Quakerism, and offers a summer course on Philanthropy.



Jim Ballengee Hon. 1689, founder of the Center for Public Service, led service learning at Penn Charter for decades, innovating, partnering and elevating the program to national prominence. Ballengee retired from Penn Charter in 2016 but continues to volunteer with organizations in neighborhoods near PC.

Ballengee often described Penn Charter as “a private school with a public purpose.”



Assistant Director Sharon Ahram also meets with Penn Charter community partners to create innovative partnerships, and with PC faculty to support classroom learning. She has extensive academic and professional experience in education, community-based learning, youth work, service learning and program management.

Ahram is a sounding board for ideas, and, confident in students’ abilities to organize, manage and lead, she takes a collaborative approach in her support of student initiatives. In concert with student leaders, mainly the Service Council, Ahram is the maestro of organizing extracurricular service learning, and the major days of service such as the fall Louis T. Savino Upper School Day of Service and the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. Ahram is the 11th and 12th grade dean and coordinator of the Senior Comprehensive Project.