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Commentary: E.M. Stanton and the future of neighborhood schools

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  • stanton drummers
    Photo: Ron Whitehorne

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Nearly 100 people attended the School Reform Commission hearing Saturday in support of E. M. Stanton Elementary. Stanton was once touted as a success story of an urban, neighborhood public school with a high degree of student success, parental involvement, and a committed, stable staff. It still has all those things, but the School District recommended that it close. 

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said at the hearing that the District should be promoting Stanton as a model school and trying to replicate its success across the city. Why doesn’t the District promote schools like Stanton?

Why does a cash-strapped District spend millions on turning neighborhood public schools into Renaissance Charter Schools, but can’t find solutions for keeping successful schools like Stanton and Sheppard Elementary in Kensington open? 

Stanton has made adequate yearly progress, the benchmark for school success created by No Child Left Behind, for eight consecutive years. A majority of Stanton’s graduates go on to special admission high schools. Community partnerships have helped develop a strong art and music program. While many schools have high teacher turnover and a large percentage of inexperienced teachers, Stanton continues to attract and keep skilled, veteran teachers. And yet, the school again faces closure.

The District has arguably exaggerated the problems with the Stanton physical plant. The 87-year-old building that houses Stanton has, according to the school's website, “a new science lab, a completely modernized library, and several upgraded classrooms equipped with Promethean Boards.”   

Many who attended the Saturday hearings are hopeful that the SRC may relent in the cases of Stanton and Sheppard. I, too, hope that they are right, but one must still ask why were they on the closure list in the first place. What does this say about the District’s priorities?

The fact is that the need to close schools is being driven primarily by the rapid expansion of charters, a development that enjoys the support of the SRC, the governor, the mayor, and the corporate elites represented in the Philadelphia School Partnership. Their agenda is privatization of schools which is being accomplished by facilitating the growth of charters and, more directly, by turning over more and more low-performing schools to private managers.  

Successful neighborhood schools, which provide important lessons on how to improve traditional schools, don’t fit the corporate-reform narrative, which stresses running schools like businesses, getting rid of unions, de-skilling teaching, and adopting a model of instruction driven by standardized tests. 

Handwriting is on the wall

The point is that, even if Stanton and Sheppard are spared, the handwriting is on the wall for neighborhood public schools, institutions that for all their shortcomings, have anchored communities and embodied the idea it is a basic right that all children in a democratic society should get a decent education.    

In the future, a lottery ticket will replace this right.   

Educational consumers and producers will duke it out in the marketplace. The winners will be the new education industrialists with their chains of education management organizations, turnaround companies, and an ever-expanding menu of services for schools. Losers will be the families left in the under-resourced rump of the traditional public schools or in those many charters who under-perform and under-serve the public.  

This seismic shift in our education system is underway in cities across the country. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia are all showcases for the new order of things. The public, at best, gets “input” in the form of hearings, but the decisions are made by unelected, unaccountable school boards. The school reformers can’t afford democracy because it might mean that parents, students, and citizens might balk about turning over public schools to private interests.

In Philadelphia, and in other cities, there has been resistance from parents, students, teachers, unions, and community groups. But it has yet to coalesce into a movement capable of countering the evisceration of public education. 

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