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Commentary: E.M. Stanton and the future of neighborhood schools

By Ron Whitehorne on Mar 6, 2012 02:41 PM
Photo: Ron Whitehorne

Stanton students perform at SRC hearings on school closures.

Nearly 100 people attended the School Reform Commission hearing Saturday in support of E. M. Stanton Elementary. Stanton was once touted as a success story of an urban, neighborhood public school with a high degree of student success, parental involvement, and a committed, stable staff. It still has all those things, but the School District recommended that it close. 

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said at the hearing that the District should be promoting Stanton as a model school and trying to replicate its success across the city. Why doesn’t the District promote schools like Stanton?

Why does a cash-strapped District spend millions on turning neighborhood public schools into Renaissance Charter Schools, but can’t find solutions for keeping successful schools like Stanton and Sheppard Elementary in Kensington open? 

Stanton has made adequate yearly progress, the benchmark for school success created by No Child Left Behind, for eight consecutive years. A majority of Stanton’s graduates go on to special admission high schools. Community partnerships have helped develop a strong art and music program. While many schools have high teacher turnover and a large percentage of inexperienced teachers, Stanton continues to attract and keep skilled, veteran teachers. And yet, the school again faces closure.

The District has arguably exaggerated the problems with the Stanton physical plant. The 87-year-old building that houses Stanton has, according to the school's website, “a new science lab, a completely modernized library, and several upgraded classrooms equipped with Promethean Boards.”   

Many who attended the Saturday hearings are hopeful that the SRC may relent in the cases of Stanton and Sheppard. I, too, hope that they are right, but one must still ask why were they on the closure list in the first place. What does this say about the District’s priorities?

The fact is that the need to close schools is being driven primarily by the rapid expansion of charters, a development that enjoys the support of the SRC, the governor, the mayor, and the corporate elites represented in the Philadelphia School Partnership. Their agenda is privatization of schools which is being accomplished by facilitating the growth of charters and, more directly, by turning over more and more low-performing schools to private managers.  

Successful neighborhood schools, which provide important lessons on how to improve traditional schools, don’t fit the corporate-reform narrative, which stresses running schools like businesses, getting rid of unions, de-skilling teaching, and adopting a model of instruction driven by standardized tests. 

Handwriting is on the wall

The point is that, even if Stanton and Sheppard are spared, the handwriting is on the wall for neighborhood public schools, institutions that for all their shortcomings, have anchored communities and embodied the idea it is a basic right that all children in a democratic society should get a decent education.    

In the future, a lottery ticket will replace this right.   

Educational consumers and producers will duke it out in the marketplace. The winners will be the new education industrialists with their chains of education management organizations, turnaround companies, and an ever-expanding menu of services for schools. Losers will be the families left in the under-resourced rump of the traditional public schools or in those many charters who under-perform and under-serve the public.  

This seismic shift in our education system is underway in cities across the country. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia are all showcases for the new order of things. The public, at best, gets “input” in the form of hearings, but the decisions are made by unelected, unaccountable school boards. The school reformers can’t afford democracy because it might mean that parents, students, and citizens might balk about turning over public schools to private interests.

In Philadelphia, and in other cities, there has been resistance from parents, students, teachers, unions, and community groups. But it has yet to coalesce into a movement capable of countering the evisceration of public education. 

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Comments (11)

Submitted by Barbara (not verified) on March 6, 2012 3:18 pm

With the low participation among parents in back-to-school night, parent-teacher conferences and when teachers call home, how does anyone believe that these same parents will be able to navigate the un-uniform world of charter school admissions - lotteries, applications, transportation, compacts, etc? And the city's neighborhoods will be as isolating and fragmented as suburban areas, where every family sends their children in a different direction, to a different school every morning. This isn't the evisceration of public education -- just urban education.

Submitted by Veteran of WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on March 6, 2012 5:51 pm

What you have to say here is so important -- I think those of us who are trying to make an argument for neighborhood schools have to be able to articulate what it is that urban parents/residents are losing if neighborhood schools are eviscerated, if they have to rely on a assortment of contract charter schools. We need to reframe the conversation in a way that makes it clear what will be forever lost if public ed is dismantled in the cities -- but also what needs to change about public ed to make it more responsive to the communities it has the potential to strengthen.

Submitted by citizen (not verified) on March 6, 2012 5:50 pm

This makes sense. Another article that helps us understand the national context is Diane Ravitch's latest essay http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/how-and-how-not-imp...

Submitted by citizen (not verified) on March 6, 2012 6:35 pm

correction: The Ravitch article is at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/how-and-how-not-imp...

Submitted by Jamie Roberts (not verified) on March 6, 2012 6:04 pm

Thanks so much for including our beloved Sheppard School in your article, Ron. We also make AYP - and offer our children countless opportunities for extra-curricular education, including iChat with Penn State students that leads to a student/family visit to Penn State (Main Campus). twice-weekly lessons from the Alice Rock School, fruit salad days with Eat Right Now, Discovery Science, Chess Club (and a chess team). a daily lunchtime meditation club (and a yoga/meditation club weekly), cheerleading, two Boy Scout troops, an organic garden, an anti-bullying program and much more. We find it incomprehensible that we were placed on the closure list. Our school is in fantastic shape, regardless of its age. Masterman must be getting along, too, but I don't hear anyone talking about closing it.

Most of all, we have exemplary leadership, a gung-ho, loving staff and the greatest group of kids you'll ever know - whose parents care for them with all of their hearts. They should be building more Sheppards and more Stantons, not shutting them down.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on March 6, 2012 9:27 pm

Jamie, As a long time Kensington resident (I once lived across the street from Sheppard), a teacher at Julia de Burgos, a supporter of EPOP when it organized parents at Sheppard and a colleague of many of who have worked at your wonderful school, I am a great believer in what you have done and continue to do.  Keep  on keeping on.
 

Submitted by Brian Cohen (not verified) on March 6, 2012 6:42 pm

It is truly unfortunate that neighborhood schools are being dismantled in this way. I am only in my third year in the School District of Philadelphia but when I started I truly believed in using anchor institutions to help connect neighborhood schools with more resources to change their communities. I still think that is possible.

Unfortunately, magnet/special-admit schools don't have that luxury because they draw from all over the city. It is almost impossible to create a "neighborhood feel" to a non-neighborhood place. Aside from all the other issues in this conversion process (privatization, disenfranchisement, etc.) this is one of the biggest drawbacks in my mind.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on March 6, 2012 7:04 pm

Until Vallas, Philadelphia had magnet programs within many neighborhood high schools. Vallas dismantled that and instead created many special admit / magnet schools. He nearly doubled the number of high schools. This was the destruction of neighborhood high schools. These were suppose to be small schools but some, like Academy at Palumbo, are being allowed to increase rapidly. Palumbo will have more students than Furness and Southern thanks to 440. School like Palumbo strip neighborhood schools of more academically motivated students while not accepting an equitable number of students with behavioral issues, IEPs, ELLs, etc. Why does anyone wonder what happened to neighborhood high schools?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 6, 2012 7:45 pm

It is truly sad, I agree with the above comment that this is the end of urban public education. In the suburbs, there are barely any charters! Really makes you think....they are targeting low income areas to sell the "we are here to rescue you" pitch. It's all a scheme, and people are falling for it.

Submitted by tom-104 on March 6, 2012 8:19 pm

Watch this talk by a Brooklyn teacher. He puts it all together.

"Still Seperate, Still Unequal: Racism, Class and the Attack on Public Education" at:

http://wearemany.org/v/still-separate-still-unequal-racism-class-and-att...

(Click the arrows in the bottom, right corner for full screen view.)

Submitted by Tanja Carter (not verified) on March 16, 2012 3:40 pm

It is a mess for any school to close unless the condition of the school is at hand. We are allowing these politicians make decisions that we as the parents should be making. These decisions are affecting the lives of our children, these decisions will determine how far our children will make it in life. All this new technology is getting in the way of our children getting educated properly. The funds that is going to technology is taking away from us and making the price of living almost unaffordable. Can we get community organizations, parents, and schools to work together to form a stronge alliance make this right again?. At one time it took a village to raise a child and education was everything. People we need to be educated and made more aware of the rights we have as people, voters and parents. Thigs can change we have to make the first move by standing stronge for what we believe in.

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