“We have to believe in ourselves and we have to speak with one voice,” said Maurice Jones, on the opening afternoon panel of the recemt Teacher Action Group/OneVoice Philadelphia Citywide Education Summit and Curriculum Fair. Jones was one of many speakers who addressed the crowd of more than 100 people on history, lessons, strategies, and victories of transforming our schools from the ground up:
Jones is the Home and School president of Lea Elementary School, a member of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, and a member of OneVoice. He chronicled the consistent and committed work of parents and community members in bringing critical resources to Lea to beautify the school inside and out, to provide arts and music enrichment for Lea students, and to build a strong base of community support around the school.
Teacher Neil Geyette described a period between 2007 and 2010 when West Philadelphia High School developed a successful inquiry-based curriculum through the creation of an Urban Leadership Academy and turned around school climate, reducing violence by 70 percent through the implementation of restorative practices.
Temwa Wright of Supporters of Stanton provided a glimpse into the intensive process that parents, educators, students, and community members undertook to keep Stanton off the chopping block, highlighting the tenacity and unity it took to ultimately triumph.
Ahmeen Akbar from YouthBuild Philadelphia talked about YouthBuild’s success in turning around their school climate and building a supportive school culture for young people and adults.
Daesya Parker from the Philadelphia Student Union addressed the role that study and analysis play in developing a vision for reform that works for our schools and communities.
The summit was a great example of the kind of unity that it will take to help parents, educators, students, workers, and community members begin to steer the ship of education reform in Philadelphia. It is clear that unless we define reform for ourselves, it will be defined for us.
Too often siloed in our separate quarters, students, parents, educators, workers, and community members are fed misinformation about each other, which prevents us from working together and broadening our analysis and our vision. As we point fingers and blame each other (“The problem is the parents.” “The problem is the teachers.” “The problem is the students.”), we are undermining the unity of the people who are affected by policies that impact our schools.
The summit also provided the space to notice that we have had many successes.
Recognizing this poses the question of why our successes haven't been built upon and replicated. Instead, our successes are too often undermined and dismantled by changes in administration and bad policy decisions. In the 10-plus years since the state takeover, it has been the directly affected stakeholders, not the “expert outsiders,” that have actually made a critical difference for our students.
The divide-and-conquer strategies that have been used in the past to confuse and divide folks on the ground can only be combated through leadership development, relationship building, and shared analysis so that we can define the purpose of education and what a quality education looks like. Only then will we be able to define what true reform looks like. Luckily, as all the presenters demonstrated, we already have a lot of the answers that we need.
The day ended with a call to action to support a “Greatness on the Ground” movement that calls for educator and community-led transformation of our schools. Up until now, local school transformation has not been a viable option and the preference of decision-makers has been measures like closure or outside management. Educators, students, parents, workers, and community members have the knowledge, experience, insight, commitment and vision that it takes to transform our schools. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Will we have the tenacity to stop accepting "no" for an answer?