Dear Dr. Hite,
In my role as statewide campaign director for POWER Interfaith, I’ve sat across the table from you more times than I can count. For the last three years, I’ve been fighting for a full and fair education funding formula at the state level that would help all Philadelphia children get the incredible education that they deserve. I write this letter in that spirit, but in a different capacity – as a newlywed and new homeowner.
Amid lots of distress about the impact of the Pennsylvania budget impasse on pre-K, the most critical budget issue for the city is actually pre-K expansion.
With its enormous unmet need for affordable, quality preschool, Philadelphia had been expecting a huge expansion in pre-K funding. Based on Gov. Wolf’s intention to add 14,000 new seats in the state’s two programs, Head Start Supplemental Assistance and Pre-K Counts, many applicant organizations went ahead and invested in readying classrooms and even hiring new staff, competing for certified teachers with experience in early childhood education. In April, 23 providers in the city applied for more than 3,800 new seats worth more than $30 million.
But nearly five months into the new fiscal year, leases have been dropped and classrooms that were readied for the new seats sit empty or have been repurposed.
For a number of years, the School District of Philadelphia has been challenged to recruit and place enough substitute teachers to cover its teacher absences. The percentage of classrooms covered by a substitute when a teacher was absent, commonly referred to as “fill rate,” hovered between 50 and 60 percent.
The District is not alone. Many districts throughout the country have been struggling to develop a large enough pool of substitutes to cover absences. Large urban districts, where teacher absences are noticeably more frequent, tend to be the most challenged. It’s an operational problem that requires considerable effort and resources, and most districts will readily admit they are ill-equipped to tackle the problem without outside help.
As Mayor Nutter prepares to depart City Hall in January, his legacy in education is facing some scrutiny. He gets good marks for his focus on raising graduation rates and support for more funding. But his agenda also included closing neighborhood public schools and the expansion of charter schools (and to a lesser extent, magnet schools), policies that drew strong opposition.
Mayor-elect Jim Kenney is on record as favoring an education agenda that includes community schools. Over the length of his term, he would like to create 25 of these schools, neighborhood public schools that build community partnerships and bring under one roof the social services and supports that students and their families need.
For his installation reForm, artist Pepón Osorio relocated a classroom from the closed Fairhill Elementary School to another classroom – at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in North Philadelphia, a mile from Fairhill.
To find reForm, you have to wander through Tyler’s occupied basement studios until, pushing through some double doors, you come across a row of cubbies from Fairhill. Jackets and backpacks hang from coat hooks. A stuffed bobcat, the school’s mascot, peers at you from atop a stack of books. Turn the corner, and a life-sized cutout of Fairhill’s former principal, Darlene Lomax-Garrett, welcomes you to the installation.
We need a better mechanism for authentic public participation in the governance of the state-controlled School District of Philadelphia.
Education Voters has launched a new effort calling for the creation of a “Citizens’ Commission for Education” in Philadelphia.
Our current structure is inadequate. “We the people” really don’t have a way to ask questions about what is going on with schools. We can go to School Reform Commission meetings and make comments or ask questions, but that is all – speakers have no certainty of a response.
It has been 32 years since "A Nation at Risk" was published. The report, issued in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, established the beliefs that schools across the nation were failing and that we needed to demand more of our teachers and our students.
"A Nation at Risk" was the blueprint for our country's hyperfocus on "measurable growth" that education stakeholders experience today. It catalyzed a shift in the U.S. concept of education. Outcomes, not input, would determine the quality of instruction. Standards, not knowledge, would dictate what gets taught, how, and for how long. Students’ “seat time” would be favored over other activities that required physical engagement.
Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite has a plan to spend up to $20 million over several years on privatization, school closures, new schools, and other turnaround efforts aimed at getting 5,000 students “in better schools close to where they live.” My 30 years of experience in performing onsite evaluations of deficient school-building conditions leads me to propose something very different. Let’s spend that $20 million fixing the schools that our kids attend now.
With $20 million, we can protect all school children and staff, while promoting achievement for many more than the 5,000 children in the limited number of schools that Hite hopes to impact. And we can do so without ignoring the universal positive impact of improving indoor air-quality conditions.
As the father of a kindergartner now attending a Philadelphia school, I’ve been following the recent flap over Philadelphia magazine’s photo for its October cover story, “A City Parent’s Guide to Schools.” Although I agree it was insensitive for the editors to put a group of White children on the cover of an issue focusing on the education of all of Philadelphia’s children, I wonder whether critics of the blunder did not go far enough.
As I read through the issue, I was troubled that the guide, though well- intended, seemed to be written with the idea that a parent is first and foremost an investor, someone who shops around for the right school as if picking a stock. I find this to be a little simplistic. After all, choosing a school for your child is not the same thing as buying shares in a company that may yield dividends – like a spot in the best high school or college – further down the road.
For almost two months, the child I was tutoring simply did not want to read. In the school library, where our reading sessions took place, she would yawn, crumple in her chair, flit around, and make excuses.
I’m thirsty. I’m tired. I have to go to the bathroom.
A good reader in 1st grade, she was now in 3rd, clueless about the sound of -tion or the possible options for final y. One day, avoiding her work, she reached behind my head, jubilantly producing a nickel.
“I just pulled this out of your ear,” she said.