by Charlotte Pope
“We are in this together. This fight you are not fighting alone.”
These are the words Philadelphia Federation of Teachers member Denise Turner used to encourage a crowd of concerned parents, educators, and caregivers who attended a meeting Thursday held by the community organizing group Action United, in support of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).
PCAPS is an organization that consists of members of the PFT, Action United, Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), Youth United for Change (YUC), and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The members gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in North Philadelphia for the first of three forums designed as town hall meetings.
The forums are intended to give community members a voice in discussions about the future of Philadelphia schools and what can be done to usher in reform that works.
Dawn Hawkins, a parent leader in Action United, shared her experiences in dealing with her son’s school, Leslie P. Hill Elementary.
“I’ve been watching his school change since he began the 3rd grade,” said Hawkins, whose son is now a 7th grader.
“He’s had five principals within four years. They continue to cut activities. He no longer has a computer class, and I have to take him seven blocks to the public library. I’m concerned that our children in low-property neighborhoods are being left out,” she said.
PCAPS was formed in response to a report released by the Boston Consulting Group last spring. In that report BCG recommended a reform plan that would close over 60 District schools and introduce a decentralized “portfolio management” model.
PCAPS members said they hope to use the forums to collect community-based alternatives to the BCG report. The plan is to present those alternatives to Superintendent William Hite and influence his final recommendations to the School Reform Commission (SRC).
At the first forum, attendees broke up into “listening sections” organized by neighborhoods. In these circles participants identified the problems they see in the District’s schools and suggested possible solutions. They also brainstormed strategies to maximize parental involvement in the coalition.
Deb Hansen, a teacher at George C. Meade School and a PFT member, is doing her part. Before the start of the forum she handed out flyers in her school.
“I’m concerned that things are going to be announced and then the community will realize what’s happening, so I’m glad we’re taking the opportunity to be proactive and trying to organize,” said Hansen.
Throughout the evening meeting, participants talked about the ramifications of school closings, such as child trauma, truancy, and the loss of a community center.
“When you’re closing schools, you’re really changing the neighborhood. We need to try to create a system that is more equitable in the way it is funded and in the way it utilizes the resources that are available,” Hansen said.
“I think that what the District is doing, this top-down approach, doesn’t really work to make changes that we would like to see. We would like to see all of our students succeed. But it doesn’t work when it’s coming from the top, or coming from the outside. Families need to be involved.”
Hawkins, who travels around the country with Action United, said the community forums are helpful to implementing real change.
“These parents here want their children to be successful. The end goal for me is to let my voice, and the voice of my neighborhood, be heard,” she said.
“We’re trying to make a difference before it’s too late.”
The next PCAPS forum will be held at the New Gethsemane Baptist Church, 917 E. Chelten Ave. at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30.