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Dungee Glenn: The real issue is equity

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Thursday's School Reform Commission vote on the recommended closure of nearly 30 schools will undoubtedly have a major impact on the future of the city's public school system. In advance of the vote, the Notebook asked prominent Philadelphians to offer their thoughts, using new data and maps on school attendance patterns in the city as a starting point.

Read the responses from: 
Mark Gleason and Mike Wang of the Philadelphia School Partnership
Helen Gym, a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education


by Sandra Dungee Glenn

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At the heart of school closings and school choice in Philadelphia is the question of equity -- or lack of it. For the last three decades, parents have been migrating to what they perceive as better options for their children, largely as a result of the neglect of schools in neighborhoods of color.

As urban districts around the country, including Philadelphia, have gone through major shifts and changes in population, we have seen large disparities among different schools, depending on where they’re located and who attends them. As various neighborhoods in Philadelphia became majority African American, and later Latino, their schools received less attention, support, and investment from “downtown.” Across the country, 70 percent of African American children still attend schools with high teacher turnover and a disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers. Their schools are more likely to have outdated facilities, constant principal churn, more safety issues and inadequate access to technology, libraries, counselors, and extracurricular activities.

Why wouldn’t parents seek alternatives?

But, practically, different communities have long had different options. In myriad ways, the District and local institutions invest in schools that mostly serve the middle class. Take Penn Alexander. The University of Pennsylvania created an upper-middle-class enclave in West Philadelphia by investing an extra $1,300 per child in a special neighborhood school. It has small classes, music, art, teacher coaches, and many other amenities. Housing prices doubled and tripled; many poor residents, mainly renters, were forced out. Middle-class families, mainly White, flocked in. I would argue that the Penn Alexanders don’t help the children who need it most. 

And then, mainly at the high school level, there is an extensive magnet system, which existed well before charters. The map shows that middle class families -- I’d argue particularly White middle class families -- have taken advantage of magnet schools. The Northeast, upper Northwest, Center City and gentrifying areas of South Philadelphia have the highest rates of attendance in magnets. You don’t see this in the poorest neighborhoods of North and West Philadelphia, Germantown, and Southwest Philadelphia. 

As a result, for families in these neighborhoods, charter schools have become a very important option. And that has exacerbated the situation for their neighborhood schools. Often, the neediest students are the ones left behind in them.

Even though these schools have students who require more services, they have less. They often lack active parent organizations, and community and business partnerships. The building often looks decrepit, classrooms are worn out, materials are outdated, teachers and principals come and go -- is that where you’d want to send your child? I don’t think so. The few that defy the odds -- I’m thinking of schools like Andrew Jackson in South Philadelphia and Overbrook Elementary (which nevertheless briefly made the closing list) -- generally have stability in teaching and leadership.

The proposed closings in neighborhoods like Germantown and Southwest, West, and North Philadelphia, are just the final chapter in a story of neglect that started years ago.

One of the legacies of Arlene Ackerman was an attempt to turn this accepted practice of neglect on its head. She hasn’t received fair credit for it. Through Promise Academies and Renaissance charter conversions, she directed more resources and attention to the students, families, and schools that needed it the most. 

Ackerman took a lot of heat for that, especially as the District’s financial picture worsened. But that’s exactly what should be done: Figure out what it will take to get our children to benchmarks of the 21st century, then make the investment we need.

The leadership in Philadelphia and the state must take a different approach to how we support and fund public education and how we align a system of public schools in a way that distributes talent, resources and quality of facilities more equitably. 

What’s important is that we have enough good options for every child, and for young children, those options should be close to where they live. All parents want and deserve safe, high-quality elementary schools in their neighborhood. We must prioritize creating the conditions that will make this a reality.

Nor can we simply write off the concept of the neighborhood high school. If we think of them as places of rote learning and rigid credit collection, then yes, they are obsolete. Instead, we must transform them into flexible centers of learning with broad offerings, as the community convinced Superintendent William Hite  to do at Strawberry Mansion. We can create neighborhood high schools that are eclectic, innovative. and dynamic. 

Which brings me to my last point. Doing this will require investment. We cannot constantly cut our way to better schools.

Pennsylvania has underfunded education for more years that I can remember. A 2008 “costing out study” determined that the state’s funding system is so unfair in terms of guaranteeing adequacy of resources that some districts are being shortchanged by thousands of dollars per student (Philadelphia lags by more than $4,000 per child per year). Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly have a responsibility to all the Commonwealth’s children, including those in its largest city. Their failure to implement a fair school-funding formula makes it impossible for Philadelphia to keep up with advances in technology, do needed maintenance and repairs, adequately support teachers, upgrade science labs, teach students a second language, or recruit and train teachers and principals with new competencies. Simply, we are failing to exercise political will to make the investment we know is needed in our schools and in our children in order to move them to success.

If we think that we can cut so deeply and be left with better schools, we are only fooling ourselves. Yes, we have to be efficient and effective, and some school closings are inevitable. But we must also determine how much money and talent it takes to educate the typical Philadelphia child in 2013 and each year going forward. Once we figure that out, we must do it.

Sandra Dungee Glenn was a member of the School Reform Commission from 2002 until 2009 and chaired the SRC from 2007 to 2009. She was also a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s commission that recently produced the National Report on Education Equity and Excellence.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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