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Propel Northside Community Wellness Center Helps Community Thrive

Dr. Tina Chekan
Dr. Tina Chekan

Propel Schools is a network of K-12 charter schools that operates in 13 locations across Allegheny County and serves 4000 students—referred to as scholars—across the region.

Because of the nonprofit’s commitment to the overall well-being of scholars, families and the community at large, the school built the Propel Northside Community Wellness Center adjacent to its Northside Propel school location, which the school views as a hub for mental, physical and behavioral wellness. Dr. Tina Chekan, superintendent and CEO of Propel Schools and the Propel Foundation, spoke to North Hills Monthly about the Center and how it is playing a role in the community at large.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the idea behind Propel Schools?

Dr. Tina Chekan (Chekan): The mission is to ensure that every scholar, regardless of race, economic status or zip code, has access to a high-quality public school experience. Part of the mission at Propel is to focus on building strong relationships with families and to make sure that they are a part of the scholars’ school experience.

NHM: I noticed that you refer to students as scholars—what is the reason behind that?

Chekan: The term scholars means that every individual engages in deep learning, and when we think about scholars here, one of our habits is ‘own it.’ We want them to own their academics, set goals and be responsible. It really helps them to think positively about their school community and know that they are an important part of that community.

For us at Propel, part of the school experience is a hands-on learning experience. We want scholars to be fully engaged from the time they walk through the door to the end of the day into the after-school program. It’s really about a mindset we are trying to instill in them that they can rise to their highest level of potential. Each and every day, we focus on building confidence within scholars. That really shines through over time: how much they’ve grown as young people, going out into the communities and really advocating for who they are as individuals and giving back; that is part of the experience that sets us apart and makes us unique.

NHM: Can you give me a bit of an overview of the Propel Northside Community Wellness Center?

Chekan: Back in 2016, we really started to notice that many of our scholars were experiencing more and more need for mental health and wellness support. As we thought about scholars who were missing school, we were looking at attendance and thinking about food insecurity. For scholars experiencing anxiety or other behavioral health issues, we wanted to make sure we were being proactive as a network of schools. If they are experiencing barriers, it’s harder to academically perform in school. We decided to bring together community partners around the table to think about what are the needs of our scholars and what are the needs of the community.

At Propel we give back, and we want our community members to feel like they are part of the school as well. It is open to the community after school hours, and anyone can come, not just Northside residents.

NHM: Can you describe some of the programs and events that are held at the Community Wellness Center?

Chekan: Propel works closely with families to see what their needs are. When we opened, we had a small group of community partners. Propel now has 40 partnerships we engage with in our center. We have opportunities like healthy cooking, Zumba and we host a lot of workshops, like one focusing on breast cancer awareness. Our Partners in Wellness Team helps to coordinate therapy and different types of support in terms of mental health and wellness that scholars may need. Propel has computers set up too, so if a family doesn’t have Internet service or a family member is looking for a job, they can use those computers to do so.

We have an extreme hip hop step class—that is one of our most popular events—with both community members and scholars. It’s a lot of fun. People come to exercise or just to socialize. We hosted an event for the county’s Learn to Earn program. It was an opportunity for families to bring in their children to learn about the program and had different vendors set up, like UPMC, the Hope Diversion Program and Adagio Health, and so there were a lot of opportunities to visit those vendors.

The other part is the backpack feeding program. We serve probably 500 scholars across Propel, maybe more. We gather cans of food, pack the backpacks and send them home with various scholars for the weekend.

Another partner is Vision to Learn. They do eye exams, and they gave over 200 pairs of glasses to our scholars in the past year. In December, we have a pretty big family event, like a spaghetti dinner, and we have Muffins for Moms or Donuts for Dads.

NHM: Can you elaborate about the Free Store & Food Distribution?

Chekan: Speaking with our families and community members, food insecurity was one area in which we wanted to make a difference. Knowing that there are a growing number of families or community members, especially post COVID, that might be in need of food, we worked with a couple of community partners, including Consumer Fresh Produce, and brought them together to respond to the need of the community and distribute food. The first time we did this, we had more than 200 people show up. Two Saturdays later, we did the distribution, and again we had more than 200 show up.

Now, every other Saturday, we distribute fresh fruits and vegetables provided by Consumer Fresh Produce, and we work with Breadworks to pass out bread. Global Links provides personal care products that we distribute.

We also have a store for clothing, giving families an opportunity to get uniforms or other clothing that they might need.

NHM: How can the community help?

Chekan: We welcome all on those Saturdays to help with the distribution, or assembling everything a few days before. We take donations of clothing for the Free Store and so any donations are welcome, especially around the holidays. Cash donations are welcome. We try at Thanksgiving to provide dinners for families or around Christmas to give some families some items or gifts so that they have them for the holidays.

Even some of our scholars from our schools occasionally volunteer at the wellness center; it is great to see them come together and to give back, because that is what Propel is about: teaching them to give back to their communities.

NHM: Why was the Community Wellness Center a good fit for the Propel organization and its mission?

Chekan: It is important to us to make sure that we are helping to improve the quality of life of our scholars, their families and community members. We wanted to expand those opportunities in other schools, but we can’t do it to the same scale because we don’t have the space. In every school, though, we have a food pantry and the backpack feeding program. I think it is important for us to remove as many barriers as possible to set our scholars up for success as they learn within our schools. We track the number of visitors to the wellness center, and I feel like we have had a very significant impact.

For more information about Propel Schools, visit

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