A community looks back on its efforts to save a neighborhood school
by Oscar Wang
The night before a crucial vote to find out whether E.M. Stanton Elementary School would stay open, Vicki Ellis reflected back on the weekend that started a nine-month effort to save the school.
June 25, 2011, was supposed to be a relaxing time for the students and teachers of Stanton. The school year had just ended the week before. Blue skies and 80-degree weather made for perfect days to kick off summer vacation.
But that was the weekend the Notebook published a confidential District document detailing preliminary school closure plans – and Stanton was on the list. That news sparked a campaign by Supporters of Stanton (SOS) of more than 36 straight weeks of meeting and lobbying, praying and mobilizing.
This band of parents, volunteers, teachers, and students told the Stanton story to anyone who would listen. They brought together a community around a school – one with thriving arts and afterschool programs, deeply embedded community partnerships, and a good academic record – that they believed the District could not afford to shut down.
Though the school has now been saved, last summer there were no guarantees. Stanton was in trouble.
Organizing a response
Taking no chances, SOS began its effort immediately.
"Within a week, we called some parents and neighbors," said Ellis, a core SOS member and resident of the Bainbridge House, the nearby faith-based cooperative just two blocks from the school, which is at 1700 Christian St. “We said, ‘Let's meet.’ And so we just started to strategize.”
Sue Kettell, a former Stanton teacher and founder of the school’s cultural arts program, was dedicated to the effort from the outset.
“It’s like a civil rights [cause] for me,” she told the Notebook. Stanton offers a low-income, largely African American student population a well-rounded education in a nurturing community setting, and achieved its “turnaround” without being turned over to a charter organization or focusing narrowly on test preparation.
To the school’s passionate and savvy supporters, it was also a test case of whether the District’s leadership, which is committed to creating a “portfolio” of schools, could get behind school reform that did not involve outsourcing services and privatization.
Ellis and Kettell were joined by four other core SOS organizers. Parents Temwa and James Wright and Angela Anderson signed up. So did Gerri Graves, the grandmother of a Stanton 8th grader.
Building a movement
From the start, they made sure that some principles of their movement would not be up for negotiation.
First, SOS would accept no result other than victory.
“There's no Plan B,” Kettell said. “From the beginning, there was no Plan B. We've got to fight this and win.”
“We want to stay at a school in our location. We want no part of any other plan. We agreed on that.”
Second, the group wanted to achieve its goals with dignity.
Kettell explained, "We made up our minds [that] we were not going to scream and holler. So we set the tone, instead of coming in and screaming and yelling … we just said we were going to keep our dignity.”
SOS’s core members also made a commitment to meet at least once every week.
“We made a pact,” Ellis said. “We said, ‘How about we meet every Sunday night?’ And there was no question. I think we missed one [meeting over Christmas] … so every Sunday … we have been here. And it’s been really amazing.”
Graves couldn’t always travel to be there in person, but her peers made sure she was there.
“I was at this one meeting. They called me and put me on the speakerphone,” she laughed. “[One time] my car was broke. Sue came and got me like six weeks in a row.”
“You’re not getting away with it!” Kettell bantered back, jokingly.
SOS also made sure to involve non-core members through regular parent meetings. James Wright proudly noted that at least 25 to 30 parents came to each one – “every time,” he said. The school librarian, custodians, and secretaries also attended, wanting to get involved, he said.
Responding to the District
By the time the District finally got around to formally unveiling the first round of recommended closures on Nov. 2, SOS had already fully mobilized an active movement. The group had obtained the support of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and had gained some key allies among District staff.
They started work on a letter-writing campaign to the SRC, held a rally that drew more than 80 people to First African Baptist Church, circulated petitions, canvassed the area around the school, and engaged with their neighborhood association on the issue.
“We had an entire summer and fall to ramp up … strategizing and planning,” said Ellis.
After Thanksgiving, the group was looking for ways to keep its momentum going. Working with the school staff, SOS came up with a counterproposal to the District's closure plans, which were based on the building’s age and its relatively small enrollment.
“We felt like, to be successful, we needed to help them solve their perceived problem,” said Ellis, who is a longtime employee of the District’s central office. “And we felt like we wanted to give them options.”
Presenting an alternate vision
The SOS counterproposal did challenge District statistics on population growth in the area, but it also offered up solutions to Stanton’s underenrollment through a grade expansion or the creation of an autism-support program.
When Temwa Wright presented the plan to the SRC at a Jan. 19, 2012, meeting, it was clear that SOS was going beyond simply opposing the closure recommendation – the group was offering alternatives.
Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky noticed.
“I've been here coming on three years and I've heard so many people come in with problems with the District,” he said. “It’s great to have somebody come in and say, 'This is the problem – and here's my idea for a solution.' It’s a great way to try to address the issue.”
All through the winter, the group continued to carry its message from community meeting to community meeting across the city. At regular SRC meetings, they were a persistent presence in their now-iconic yellow shirts.
“We [only] missed one,” James Wright said. “A sneak meeting they scheduled really late. It was a budget meeting – 10 in the morning on a Wednesday.”
On Wednesday, March 28, the night before the final decision, SOS’s core members sat down for dinner at the Bainbridge House, as they had been doing once a week since the start of the process.
There were no banners, no signs, no speakers. The campaign was coming to a close, and their fate would soon be known.
Kettell and Ellis reminisced at the dinner table, drawing on memories from 2003, when District officials last proposed to shut down E.M. Stanton.
With a core group of eight organizers, they were able to convince then-CEO Paul Vallas to save the school, which was in need of academic turnaround.
Kettell compared this process to the one back then.
“We were able to tell [Stanton’s] story then like, ‘Give it a chance. Things are happening. School reform. C'mon!’ Now the story's like, ‘Are you kidding me? This school is totally made it. It’s done everything the District's asked. It’s turned around. It’s a wonderful, wonderful school.’ Now the story is totally compelling.”
Ellis said the earlier campaign had given her confidence. “I think one of the things I learned from that effort, that I applied to this effort, was that I knew we could succeed,” she said.
The final decision
Since November, a big sign reading “SAVE STANTON SCHOOL,” from the 2003 campaign, has dominated the school’s front wall.
“When we win," Kettell said the night before the SRC vote, ”we have the words that go, ‘WE DID’ in front of the sign. We’re going to put that up Friday morning at 7 a.m.”
The following night, a Thursday, dozens of SOS members filed into the District’s second-floor auditorium at 440 N. Broad St. promptly at 5:30 p.m.
Less than an hour and a half later, they were dancing and singing, crying and hugging. The SRC members signaled early in the meeting that they had gotten the message: While they were concerned about aging facilities, it made no sense to close high-performing District-run schools like Stanton. They also spared Isaac Sheppard Elementary, a small, spunky school that is a beacon in a trouble-plagued section of Kensington.
Sure enough, Kettell was up at 7 the next morning, putting up her sign. The school held celebrations, complete with artistic performances, speeches, and cake.
While Stanton students danced and sang and laughed as loud music echoed in the background, SOS members simply looked on and smiled. Still proudly sporting their yellow T-shirts, they not only exuded a sense of relief, but also of accomplishment.
It was a victory nine months in the making. Together the Supporters of Stanton showed all of Philadelphia the power of a movement ready to fight for a common cause. They showed that it is still possible for a community to come together around a neighborhood school.