The monthly School Reform Commission meetings are known for passionate testimony from frustrated parents seeking solutions for their children’s schools. It is not unusual for parents’ comments to go over the allowed time, because three minutes isn’t enough for them to get their points across.
Parents are dissatisfied – angry, even. And they say they don’t feel valued by the Philadelphia School District or its governing body, the SRC.
Kendra Brooks, 44, began her work as a parent organizer in 2013 after she noticed major changes happening in city schools. Before that, her involvement as a parent in the District didn’t go beyond bake sales and fundraisers. But once the District began closing schools and pulling significant resources from those that remained, Brooks switched her focus.
“That’s what made me take more interest in the administrative portion,” said the mother of three public school students. “[I focused on] how the money was being spent around schools, not just being coffee and tea mom. Doughnuts and muffins. I realized we need to pay attention to more than just bringing desserts to the school.”
What she learned when she paid attention led Brooks to join Parents United for Public Education. As an organizer, Brooks mobilizes parents to advocate for their children and their schools. Earlier this year, she tried unsuccessfully to help parents fend off a takeover of John Wister Elementary School by Mastery Charter Schools.
Her advocacy often puts her before the SRC. It is rarely a pleasant experience.
Brooks said she often feels that the District doesn’t listen to parents and doesn’t respect their input. She said that SRC meetings, which many parents attend to voice their concerns about various school issues, are a “hostile environment for parents.” Although she prepares parents to testify before the SRC on behalf of their children, she said she feels anxious when going before the panel herself.
“The level of disrespect that’s shown to parents in that space ... if they’re not in agreement with what the SRC is doing, is really sad,” she said.
Apart from testifying before the SRC, parents say, they have few options to be involved in decision-making at their children’s schools.
“Some people do not want to be part of a Home and School,” said Robin Roberts, an organizer with Parents United. “Some people don’t want to be part of the PTA. They want to have a say in the policies and processes that happen in the school.”
Tonayia Coffer, the mother of three children in the District and also a member of Parents United, said inconvenient scheduling deters parents from attending annual Title I meetings at some schools, which, by federal law, require parent attendance so they can be informed on important topics like school funding, teacher qualifications, and academic standards.
“If you hold the meeting at 9 o’clock in the morning, where no parent is available, that limits the parent voice,” said Coffer.
For parents who do show up, nothing substantive is discussed, she said. At these schools, the meetings serve as an opportunity for parents to sign in, confirming their attendance.
Brooks, Roberts, and Coffer are among the many parents who want to see the SRC replaced by a locally elected school board. Brooks said she wants the District to be governed by “people who live in Philadelphia, have children who go to Philadelphia public schools and are connected to the growth and stability of the economy of Philadelphia.”
“We need to be sure that there are people on our school board that care for the long-term stability of the city, for the people in the city, and have a vested interest in public schools,” Brooks said.
Nina Bryan, director of the Eastwick Education Committee, an advocacy group within the Eastwick Community Network, isn’t so quick to call for an end to the commission.
She conceded that she has personal relationships with some members, which gives her insight into their intentions, which she says are good. She sympathizes with the limits imposed on them by bureaucracy, but she doesn’t let that blind her to the inequities in city schools and the responsibility to address them.
“I don’t know all the constraints of what they do,” she said. “[But] I do know they are to be the leaders.”
She remains neutral on the topic of getting rid of the commission, but whether the governing body is state-appointed or locally controlled, she said, community members should be involved.
“I believe given the opportunity for any governing board,” she said, “given the opportunity for clear objectives in what we’re trying to do, in light of [fairness], I believe it can be done by anyone. I believe that community members should perhaps sit on the SRC. … Community involvement and community groups should have more say-so in the schools their children go to.”