April 16, 2013, seemed to be a day of unmitigated success for Dimner Beeber Middle School’s community. Initially slated to close as part of the Philadelphia School District’s downsizing process, Beeber was spared because, according to Supertintendent William Hite, an alternate proposal put forward during a community meeting to reshape the school had urged the School Reform Commission to rethink its decision.
Though two other factors (safety concerns surrounding the death of a high school student and the co-location of the Science Leadership Academy, a touted magnet school, in Beeber’s building) may have been enough to save the school regardless of the community’s efforts, parents were indispensable. According to Beeber teacher and education activist Sam Reed, parents were critical to "the preservation of the nature of the school [as] a place that’s by and for the people who live" in the Overbrook/Wynnefield area.
A little more than a year has passed since momentum first built up around the school. Though Beeber parents’ early victory may have initially boosted morale, frustration with the understaffed administration’s powerlessness to meet students’ needs has since left many disengaged.
Katherine DeLisa Stokes, a past Beeber parent and one of the school’s earliest advocates, explained the difficulty of dealing with a downsized staff. “The roles have changed so much [that] it’s very confusing to try to figure out who you’re supposed to be speaking to,” said Stokes. “The principal is doing his best, but everyone in the office wears multiple hats. … It’s almost impossible to figure out who you should be speaking to about what.”
Anxious that her child’s needs would not be fully met in a strained environment, Stokes decided to transfer her daughter, an 8th grader, into a PA Cyber Charter School program in December 2013.
As Stokes’ experience suggests, the school’s behavioral and academic challenges remain widespread. In conducting research at Beeber for a thesis project through Penn during the last six months, I observed that parents’ greatest frustrations were not rooted in problems with the school itself.
Parents that I interviewed cited neither ineffective teachers nor hostile administrators as Beeber’s greatest impediment. They cited, rather, the school’s perpetual, debilitating lack of allocated funds and the programs once funded by the District that have now been cut.
“We used to have a music program, SWAG [Students with Academic Goals – an afterschool academic program], sports, and other extracurricular activities,” said Beeber parent Rayette Bosley. “We even had martial arts.
“The things that have gone missing are the ones that actually shape the character of students. … There’s constantly just a lot of empty promises -- it’s disappointing. And this year I had expected so much more.”
Referring to the District’s stated reasons for closing Beeber, including low academic performance and poor building quality, Bosley thought it was “backwards” that the District would choose to add hurdles to the educational development of already struggling children. Echoing a view touted by several other Beeber parents, she laments that the school budget seems skewed toward supporting “proven” schools while doing very little to bring up those in greatest need.
That parents, teachers, students, and other organizers rose to advocate for Beeber is certainly an unquestionable feat – but the battle for the school’s future preservation is far from over. It is not enough simply to “save” a struggling school from closure or to create an alternate plan for its redevelopment – it is equally important, and certainly as formidable a task, to carry out such plans to improve it.
"The threat [of future closure] is still there, but we’re in the business of hope in education,” said Reed. “If we didn’t have hope, we wouldn’t have saved this school. Sure, we’ve had a few blows but maybe we let [our feet] off the pedal too soon in the fall. [Now] we have another year and another shot at getting it right.”
Reed asserts that, with faith and dedication, the community can replicate its early momentum, thus transforming the case of Beeber into one of crisis averted, not simply postponed.
Increased school funding at the policy level, as parents recognized, is just one piece of the much larger puzzle of school improvement. But just as Beeber’s early lessons suggest, the power that can be derived from within the community is inestimable.
The path toward getting it right lies just as much in the process of translating single actions, like the “Save Beeber” rallies, into sustained, on-the-ground efforts that unite parents and community members long after the protests end. Only through relationship-building and the acknowledgement of a shared fate can such stakeholders strive toward a shared vision of a more ideal future for this neighborhood school.
Samantha Osaki is a graduating senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Urban Studies and English Literature. Next fall, she will pursue a Master's degree in Education Leadership School Improvement at the University of Cambridge.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.