Hundreds of students marched to City Hall yesterday demanding that the city help with the School District's dire budget shortfall. It was an admirable, even inspiring moment of collective civic action. The students, who came from many different schools, organized a march in the ways expected from young people today: over social media, through text messaging, and by word of mouth.
The demonstration was both highly visible and audible. It could be tracked with news helicopters in the air and documented by iPhones on the ground.
Lately, there has been a surge of activity more difficult to see and hear. I'm referring to the activity of hundreds of parents fighting for the schools. Those of us with work to do, dinner to cook, and kids to car-pool haven’t been staging large Occupy Wall Street-type protests. But don’t mistake our lack of chanting on Broad Street for silence.
Ask members of City Council whether they think parents have been quiet. Over the last two weeks, parents have been mobilizing. There have been, for instance, extensive campaigns to write and call Council representatives. When I asked the staffer of one council member whether there had been many calls, he answered, “millions.” That might have been an overstatement, but the larger point is true: Parents are organized, and we are marching in our own special way.
On April 29, parents from Meredith and other Center City schools walked to City Hall for Superintendent William Hite’s budget presentation to City Council. On May 7, Independence Charter School had a “Day of Action”: 87 families and staff members made 300 calls to 44 city and state politicians, including Gov. Corbett. On May 11, a coalition of parents from GAMP, Penn Alexander, and CAPA will hold a petition drive at the Spruce Hill Community Association’s annual May Fair. On May 20, there will be a rally at Roxborough High School to protest the budget cuts.
Here are some more examples:
- The Greenfield Home and School Association has organized an ongoing calling campaign targeting three Council members per day.
- The Greater Center City Schools Coalition has a similar campaign, including calls to the mayor’s office.
- Parents, teachers, and students at Shawmont, Cook-Wissahickon, and Dobson elementary schools have mounted petition drives, organized days of phone calls to Council members, and are planning lobbying visits.
- Masterman parents, already writing and calling, have been tweeting.
- GAMP's families have sent at least 1,580 letters to Council members.
- Penn Alexander has been promoting petitions, one of which currently has 3,000 signatures.
And so on.
Parents are organizing in the ways that we would expect from middle-aged people today: over e-mail, through text messaging, and by telephone. Yes, even on Facebook.
The parents’ network consists of overlapping networks -- the people we know from kids’ schools and activities, from around the neighborhood, from work, from religious communities. When I was growing up in the suburbs in the '70s and '80s, these networks tended to be one and the same: Where you lived determined where you went to school, which determined what activities you took part in. There was one set of parents, not a Venn diagram full of them.
This is not what happens in Philadelphia today. If there are five kids on a block, they seem to go to five different schools. Even within a single family, three kids might attend three different schools. Neighborhoods are tight, but this is in spite of, not because of, common schools. The children’s activities can take you all over the city. The social networks multiply and intersect.
It is this extensive network that enables the loose but effective coordination of the parent protest. It means that a letter-signing drive at the Fairmount Arts Crawl can be conducted by neighborhood kids who are in four different schools. It means that one Home and School Association meeting has parents from different neighborhoods. It means that when the chair of City Council’s Education Committee says on a Thursday night that she is refusing to endorse additional funding for schools, by Saturday afternoon, dozens, even hundreds of smartphone-wielding parents on the sidelines at kids’ baseball games are talking about it.
The nature of the parents' network speaks to one reason why we need strong public schools in Philadelphia. Schools are part of what holds the social network of this city together. Take away the families with children in public schools, and the network frays. That’s why, in our own way, parents are calling.
Kristen Poole teaches at the University of Delaware, but prefers to live in Philly. A resident of Fairmount, she and her husband have a child in a public school (GAMP) and another in parochial school.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.