Farah Jimenez, newly confirmed member of the School Reform Commission, will be the first to concede that the SRC is not the answer to solving myriad problems that plague the District. And it may not ever be.
There are a lot of vehicles through which she could work to help Philadelphia kids achieve, Jimenez told me over a cup of coffee in West Philly last week. “It doesn’t have to be the SRC," she said. "But it is what it is, and it’s my pleasure to serve.”
By an overwhelming majority, the state Senate confirmed Jimenez, executive director of People’s Emergency Center, and City Councilman Bill Green to the five-member board last week. It was no secret that Jimenez, 45, was open to the idea of floating her name as a replacement for Joseph Dworetzky. She views her SRC involvement as “a calling.”
If serving on the SRC helps her advocate for the schoolchildren of Philadelphia, she’s all for it. Of all the things Jimenez is -- Penn Law School graduate, Afro-Cuban daughter of immigrant parents, Republican wife of a white, Jewish, Democratic lawyer, CEO of a decidedly democratic nonprofit with a radical name -- she is most definitely a pragmatist.
She’s accomplished much at the helm of People’s Emergency Center, the behemoth West Philadelphia nonprofit that provides housing and services for homeless and low-income families. She has spent her entire professional career running grassroots nonprofits, dispensing a rare combination of empathy and tough love.
“At my core, I believe no one signs up for a difficult life,” Jimenez said. “If you start from that premise, you can listen to people’s stories.”
At the same time, the conservative in her believes too much compassion can be a destabilizer. “What changes people's beliefs is the struggle of doing something difficult and succeeding at it and taking pride in it. That’s when you become aware of your own potential.”
Her role at the Emergency Center, and now at the School Reform Commission, is one of connecting resources.
“The state is the piggy bank with no control over expenditures and the city has no control over revenue,” Jimenez said. “The SRC should be a steward over both.”
Indeed, her SRC work seems a natural extension of her work at the People's Emergency Center, where 60 percent of the mothers who access services lack a high school diploma or a GED.
“Education,” she said, “is the world’s most durable good. It’s the only thing you can acquire that no one can take away from you. So the question is, how do we give that to more people?”
The District faces at least a $300 million shortfall between what it has and what it needs, which has resulted in layoffs, cuts in basic services and the city scrambling for one-time budgetary Band-Aids. Clearly, the District’s money problems have been well-reported, but what tends to get lost at the table of competing financial interests are the students themselves.
Jimenez hopes to change the topic of conversation from “financial crisis” to “educational achievement.”
““How do we get parents to understand [whether] their child’s school is delivering expected outcomes, like character-building, citizenship, learning to read at grade level?" she said. “What are schools doing to ensure success?”
For her part, Jimenez plans to visit a lot of schools, do a lot of listening and a lot of asking questions before forming opinions. And she does have questions. For instance, after reading a PennCAN study, which shows that Asian students, many of whom deal with language deficiencies, academically soar above other minority students, she asked the District for data that parses out immigrant student achievement.
Her theory? As a child of immigrants, “You’re not [succeeding] just for you. You’ve got the weight of the family on you. That was the script I lived as a child. I owed it to my parents to do my best.”
As a Corbett appointee, Jimenez has already received her share of scrutiny. State Sen. Vincent Hughes, one of two dissenters on her confirmation vote, asked of Green and Jimenez: “Where do they sit in terms of the governor's views? Where do they sit in terms of their own views?"
Although she may differ with Democratic stakeholders regarding the process, Jimenez is secure in knowing that ensuring successful outcomes for Philadelphia students is a nonpartisan goal.
“We’ll look at the evidence of what works and then craft strategies,” she said. "If we view each other as adversaries, we shut down the conversation. And what’s the point of that?”
Annette John-Hall is the director of Mighty Writers West.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.