The Community’s Schoolhouse

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The rhythmic tip-tap-tip of sneakers against the rubber floor punctuates the pauses between the beats of techno-music. Fifteen women of varying ages, races, and levels of physical fitness rock from side to side in easy motions. Sometimes pumping their arms, sometimes lunging, squatting, or jogging in place to the steady thumps pumping from the little boom-box and the cooing reassurances offered by the instructor, the women exude different degrees of determination. Some stand up front with their eyes trained on the instructor, ready to mimic every movement, while others linger on the edges of the group and bounce slightly to the beat. 

The bright tissue-paper fish swimming on the walls and windows, and the posters of little kids and sports stars striking active-lifestyle poses remind them that this isn’t a posh Bally aerobics session, but the instructor is giving the women a good workout nonetheless. 

This is Tuesday night Cardio Pilates at Penn Alexander Elementary School. Set on a hillside on 43rd Street between Locust and Spruce, the University-assisted public school (which opened in 2001) is part of a long-term effort by Penn to revitalize West Philadelphia in partnership with its neighbors. But what’s newest at this facility are the community events now being hosted here and run by Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships (CCP). 

The Penn Alexander Community School began in December as a pilot program ( It currently runs only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but program coordinator Rashida Holmes C’94 is looking to add more days to the calendar of events. The offerings include pick-up basketball games; Cardio Pilates and muscle-conditioning; a class on home financing; and several parent-children activities, including puppet-making and acting workshops. 

With funding by CCP as well as sponsors such as Citizens and Commerce banks, the community program is “free and open to the public,” including adults who do not have children attending Penn Alexander. 

“The hope is that it would serve as a hub for the revitalization of the community,” says Holmes during an interview in her third-floor office overlooking the atrium where dozens of school-children mingle after a safety assembly. “People come here not just to be recipients of service, but also to give services and volunteer their talents. We want to be able to tap into that; we want people to have a creative outlet.” 

Planning for the next few months is already under way, and Holmes is hoping to include more life-skills programs, such as urban parenting skills workshops led by Dr. Howard Stevenson, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, and job-hunting workshops with staff from Penn’s Career Services. 

The reviews so far are enthusiastic. Eva Higgins, a senior citizen from 45th Street and a member of the Pilates workout group, found out about the program while attending a kickboxing class with Holmes. “It’s wonderful! I have rheumatoid arthritis, and it helps my joints,” she said while pulling at her swollen knuckles, “I try to do anything like this. I’m still kicking it.”

When asked about other events, she admitted that she tried to come play basketball one Thursday, but “all the guys were way up there, and I thought they would just pat me on the head and go, ‘Yeah right.’”

Patrick Brugh C05

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