Widener, Chester forging close community ties

Courtney Christman, a physical therapy student at the clinic at Widener University, helps Bill Weir with a leg problem. The clinic, run by graduate students, is free to Chester residents.
Courtney Christman, a physical therapy student at the clinic at Widener University, helps Bill Weir with a leg problem. The clinic, run by graduate students, is free to Chester residents. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 05, 2012

Janet Maddox Jones needed physical therapy for sciatica and scoliosis, and her insurance was tapped out.

Her doctor referred her to Widener University's free clinic, set up and run by graduate students.

"They took care of you like you were an individual person, not a number," said Jones, 77, a lifelong Chester resident and one of the first black cheerleaders at its high school in the 1950s.

That experience and others have made Jones, a retired customer relations manager, a Widener fan.

While a simple tale, it symbolizes the kind of relationship that the 6,240-student private university has been striving to build with its struggling host city, especially over the last decade under president James T. Harris III.

Widener started a charter school, opened a free nursing clinic, linked students' community service to scholarship money, fostered community-based work by its professors, and established a civic engagement committee of the board of trustees.

It created a police substation in partnership with Crozer-Chester Medical Center, started a college access center with other local colleges, and brought in a hotel and retail complex.

Chester last year was named one of six cities under President Obama's "Strong Cities, Strong Communities" plan aimed at spurring economic development. The program doesn't include funding, but does offer federal expertise coordinated through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and help in fostering relations and researching solutions.

"Widener University was key in how we looked at the opportunities and what we can really do to help reinvent and build the economy," said Mark Linton, executive director of the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities. Linton participated in a daylong forum last week at Widener on the role of "anchor institutions" in sustaining community economic development.

When Harris arrived in 2002, Widener was planning to spend million of dollars to build eight-foot black iron fences to enclose the campus - wall it off in a sense from Chester, home to one of the worst-performing and most-impoverished school districts in the state.

One administrator told him: "Chester is a black hole in which you throw all your money and it will go nowhere."

Chester's attitude toward Widener was equally fraught, Harris recounted in a speech at the forum. Wendell N. Butler Jr., a former Chester mayor who was then the police commissioner, relayed the popular view: "Widener's a dragon that eats up land and doesn't pay taxes."

At his inauguration a few months later, Harris pledged to educate students to be responsible citizens - and that meant turning Widener into a better neighbor, he said. Civic engagement and connecting the curriculum to local issues became primary goals for the school.

The policy met with resistance from faculty and staff at first, some who felt the initiative would take the focus off the classroom. The 2003 murder of a Widener student in an off-campus robbery revived fears.

But over time, attitudes began to change. In a symbolic move, Widener built an entrance to campus off Providence Avenue that faced Chester.

In 2003-04, Widener set aside money for faculty to develop what has grown into more than 70 courses tied to community-based projects.

"I've seen a tremendous change in the willingness of not just the community willing to come to Widener, but Widener being willing to go out into the community," said associate professor Marina Barnett.

An expert in social work and community organizing, Barnett and her students have walked virtually every Chester block, surveying residents and assessing the location of key places such as food stores and youth programs.

Universitywide, more than 3,000 students have taken community-based courses over the last several years, Harris said. Widener's most lucrative scholarships go to students willing to perform 300 hours of community service per year.

Anna Miller, 22, an MBA student from York County, got one of them. She began helping City Team Ministries as a freshman. She attended summer camp with mothers and babies, gave out school backpacks, and prepared Christmas gifts.

"It's changed my life completely," Miller said. Once aspiring to a biology career, she now wants to do foundation work.

In the coming months, Harris said, he would like to find ways to help the school district, which could go into state receivership after its board failed to adopt a recovery plan.

During his decade as president, he said, he has had to deal with 12 different district leaders, which meant partnerships had to be renegotiated. With a state grant, Widener, along with district educators, crafted a curriculum, only to see it tossed when a new team came on.

"It was really out of frustration that we moved in the charter direction," Harris said.

The 350-student, K-7 charter school has met state standards for adequate yearly progress since its students were first tested, Harris said. Widener's nursing, clinical psychology, and social work students help there.

Butler, who left as mayor in December, said Harris has improved relations.

"He set the tone early on when he got here, and it's been nothing but true to form since," he said.

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, Chester mayor from 1998 to 2002, said Widener had made previous efforts to reach out but never in a coordinated way and under a stated mission.

"It just wasn't as high of a priority" as it is under Harris, he said.

Mayor John Linder, a 1976 graduate of Widener who took office in January, contacted Harris early on, pledging to work even more closely.

"I want to bring those two entities together because I do believe Widener is very significant," said Linder, a retired community college professor born and raised in Chester.

Linder said that years ago, he was identified as a neighborhood student with potential and recruited to attend Widener.

"Academically, I survived, but socially it was very difficult to make that transition," he said. But the experience proved "the best thing that happened to me."

He wants to help Chester's students find similar paths today.

As does Janet Maddox Jones. At the physical therapy clinic, Jones learned to stretch and exercise properly and her mobility improved.

The clinic treats residents of Chester and surrounding towns who don't have insurance or have exhausted their allotment. Under the guidance of a licensed therapist, graduate students learn to run a clinic and hone their craft.

Jones also has had a positive experience with Widener students who volunteer in the after-school program she directs. And she has taken her young students on tours of Widener.

"I'm hoping - and praying - that Chester will revive itself," Jones said, "and I think Widener being here might be one of the reasons that might happen."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq

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