Like most great things, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook was a concept and a vision long before it became the indispensable news forum it is today.
I still remember my first introduction – a large gymnasium in Feltonville with dozens of us in an ever-widening circle talking about a vision of an independent media outlet that would uplift the voices and concerns of parents, youth, teachers, staff, and concerned Philadelphians about our schools. I was surrounded by the most amazing and diverse array of visionaries from all over the city – longtime educators, parent organizers, community leaders, and artists – who made room for a rookie teacher like me with a bewildered political understanding about education and race politics.
We came from a variety of experiences far beyond schools: housing and criminal justice struggles, the Asian American movement, community development. The Notebook has always reminded me of how much I learned at the feet of so many of Philadelphia’s best grassroots leaders and activists.
Hope and a sense of possibility infused the conversation and the interactions we had with one another. But the thing that set the experience apart was undoubtedly the hard work we put in, slogging through issue after issue. From cutting and pasting down headlines to hawking papers outside the Gray’s Ferry supermarket, it was as much labor as it was love, and on more than a couple of occasions, even more so.
After two decades, it’s sometimes tempting to look back and exclaim: I can’t believe it’s been 20 years! But not for me. I feel every one of those 20 years – not in the arthritic sense, but in the understanding that great projects like the Notebook don’t arise overnight. It takes 20 years to gain knowledge. It takes 20 years of history to look at the latest educational fads in their proper light. It takes 20 years for many of us to have evolved into different roles that help us understand this complicated institution from different perspectives. I went from teacher to reporter to school founder to parent. Each new evolution brought new understanding to my writing and work with the Notebook.
For almost 20 years, the Notebook’s been an integral part of my life, and now, I’m learning to let it go and watch it sail off to new paths surrounded by new stewards. But as I look back on these two decades, I hope that our readers might appreciate some thoughts about how the Notebook grew into its role as the leading voice on education issues in the city.
- The Notebook worked hard to develop a broad base of enthusiastic readers, who not only promoted the paper, but also became more active through their readership. That comes from our organizing roots to develop an information vehicle that gave knowledge not just for knowledge's sake, but to inspire action and engagement.
- The Notebook writes about how policies have real consequences. Most media institutions focus inordinately on the passage of this or that resolution, completely divorced from political and historical context or the very real impact it has on young people, school staff, and your neighborhood school. That’s the stuff that people care about and that matters.
- The Notebook holds civic and elected leaders accountable like no other. Whether it's Education Management Organizations, for-profit disciplinary institutions, high-stakes school contracts, or financial shell games, the Notebook unpacks a fearless trail of responsibility that few can match.
- We understand that change doesn’t happen from the top down, so we make a conscious effort to raise up the voices of those impacted by education policy. Too often, the schools debate consists of the same back-and-forth gobbledygook among assorted talking heads and elected officials, while parents, students and teachers are sidelined as hapless victims. That doesn’t clarify things. Too often it confuses it. We make a conscious effort to show grassroots work as equally positive and powerful forces of change and impact. People aren’t excluded from shaping the future of schools. Our engagement is the future of our schools.
- The Notebook attracts great people to our work and to our board. You’re not going to find a better editor than Paul Socolar at the Notebook. You're not. He's lived this work. He has incredible institutional memory, a strong sense of humility, and renowned integrity. Similarly, the Notebook works hard to develop a board and staff team that reflects the original values that inspired the Notebook’s founding. When you marry a great vision with a great team, how can you go wrong?
My work with the Notebook holds its place as a defining moment of my life and career, and it’s been an honor to have been a part of its history. In a world where so often knowledge is commodified, communities are devalued, and our voices co-opted, the Notebook has been home to a different vision of our schools, showing that another world is always possible.
Helen Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education and a founding member of the Notebook.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.