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Commentary: Advocacy lessons from Upper Darby

By Nijmie Dzurinko on Jul 24, 2012 12:37 PM

A wave of “people power,” has been spreading through the Upper Darby School District. Although it’s right in our backyard, many of us may not be aware of the struggle that has much to teach us here in Philadelphia. 

Since the announcement of an “academic realignment plan” in  April and the school board’s vote to approve it in May, parents, students and teachers have engaged in intensive and strategic organizing. And the bottom line is that they succeeded in getting the District to back off some of the proposed changes and helped restore $2.7 million in state dollars that had been slated for elimination.

They are doing so through the telling of personal stories and by rejecting the label of failure.

And their crusade is not yet over, as not everything they are concerned about has been addressed.

“Parents and neighbors continue to organize and educate ourselves,” said William Kaplan, parent of a 2nd grader  and a kindergarten student at Highland Park Elementary Center.

“By limiting the full range of human experiences for our students, we fail to provide our children with an education of the highest quality.”  

This point was made by a video with over 30,000 views that chronicles the struggle against budget cuts and the realignment plan.

The plan, first unveiled on April 10 by Assistant Superintendent Daniel McGarry, proposed to save $3 million by eliminating music, art and gym in elementary schools, ending foreign language and technology instruction in middle schools,  and cutting 57 teaching positions, including all librarians. 

McGarry cited both the budget crisis and academic decline as the reasons for these measures, which were tied to a proposal to “increase learning time” by cutting “extras” out of the school day. 

Upper Darby, in Delaware County on Philadelphia’s southwest border, has about 80,000 residents and 12,000 public school students who speak 62 languages. 

Gov. Corbett’s budget would have cut $6 million from its $156 million budget, leaving the district with a $13 million deficit.  Additionally, Upper Darby taxpayers contribute $3.5 million to fund area charters that its students attend, although none are located in the township.

If using the pretext of a budget crisis to radically transform the delivery of education sounds familiar, it should.  The story of what is taking place in Upper Darby mirrors what is going on in Philadelphia, and we would do well to learn from it – not only from the strategies and proposals introduced by McGarry, but from the localized and unified movement standing up for what parents, students and citizens believe public education should be. 

Creating symbols, breaking isolation

Organizers honed in on the cuts to arts in particular, using them to symbolize the heart of the school district. Very shortly after the proposal was announced, the site went up and an accompanying tumblr blog invited people to tell their stories. Thereafter, the movement became known as SUDA, for Save Upper Darby Arts. SUDA is clear and has promoted the message that what is happening in Upper Darby is not unique and is in fact going on all over the state.

Parents, students and teachers united

Various stakeholder groups have worked together and independently with shared analysis, leadership, and messaging to collect  22,000 signatures, mobilize 1,000 people to the first school board meeting after the plan was introduced, and speak with legislators in Harrisburg firsthand. The existence of a force like SUDA at this political moment stands out in a traditionally Republican stronghold.

Redefining 'failure'

Although the reorganization plan comes on the heels of warnings about academic decline, SUDA has largely rejected the “failure” label that is being applied to Upper Darby schools. Citing instead the rich tradition of art and music programming that graduates say was instrumental to their future success (Tina Fey is perhaps the most famous example), the movement prioritizes funding for art, music, libraries, and teaching positions over merely extended time for test preparation. 

The power of stories

The Save UDArts movement has opened up space for everyone to play a role in what’s happening through the use of personal stories. Moving testimonials on the tumblr page are accompanied by images of current and former students bearing signs that say “I am not a failure” and “we are humans, not test scores.”  Current students as well as alumni, parents, and others engage with the site to tell their stories of how they have been impacted by arts education in Upper Darby.



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Comments (16)

Submitted by Roger Swartz (not verified) on July 26, 2012 3:21 pm

Another excellent article, there is a clear threat to extracurricular programs for all schools through out the state both public and private. When I was a child my elementary school offered piano lessons, being a shy and introverted at that age these lessons helped me to come out of my shell. I will never forget my piano teacher who was a great person as well as a great teacher.The lessons and guidance I received in that class are still present in my life. This nonsense of turning children and teens into test scores to justify cutting budgets and turning schools into big business must stop. Expression is a part of learning and it starts at an early age and learning how to create and express needs to be in our schools. “By limiting the full range of human experiences for our students we fail to provide our children with an education of the highest quality.” this truly speaks volumes. What the powers that be don't realize is that by marginalizing the youth today who will be the leaders, visionaries, creators, and organizers tomorrow. Maybe they do and don't care which is why it's good to see people coming together to stop this. Thank you Nijmie for bring light to this subject and keep up the fantastic writing.

Submitted by Veteran of WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on July 26, 2012 5:42 pm

Great piece, Nijmie. What is happening in Philly that is parallel that we can get involved in?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 27, 2012 12:25 am

Hey man, I'm following you so you can't just follow me!

Submitted by Nijmie (not verified) on July 27, 2012 1:34 pm

I personally am involved with OneVoice Philadelphia which is an initiative aimed at uniting parents, teachers, and students to build our leadership, collective power and analysis. OneVoice wants to be part of a larger, proactive and community-based agenda-setting process for the future of education in our school district, though it remains to be seen whether something like that can happen here. Currently we are pushing for educator-led school transformation and we need everyone's help with that!

Submitted by Greg N. (not verified) on July 26, 2012 9:41 pm

The elections of 2010 allowed these Tea Party Crazies to bolster the "Charter Lie" and Corbett's cuts were designed to help the transition away from democracy and towards privatization which is code for SEGREGATION. WE all need to stand and stop this madness TOGETHER. WE also need to remember the famous words of Vincent Hughes, "Elections Matter." Get our asses up and vote even though the same anti american slithering types are trying their best to stop large segments of the U.S. Citizenry from voting. Hopefully, we shall have learned a very hard lesson from all this Right Wing Extremism--VOTE !!

Submitted by Ken Derstine on July 27, 2012 5:23 am

The problem is..who do we vote for? Both parties represent the interests of the 1%, not the 99%!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 27, 2012 8:53 am

Not really. For starters, there is no 99%. The top 25% and the bottom 50% of the country have absolutely nothing in common. The top 25% cannot possibly imagine what the lives of the bottom 50% are like, let alone the bottom 25%.

Secondly, there have been candidates in every single recent election in this state that have come from working or middle class backgrounds and that aren't anything like the extremist, corrupt Republicans that came into office in 2010. I know because I'm an informed voter and I voted for them in those elections.

This "they represent the 1%" crap is just lazy and an excuse for people's inaction in the process that most affects their own society.

It's people like you who we have most to thank for what is happening to our schools and to our communities in general.

-an Upper Darby resident

Submitted by Ken Derstine on July 27, 2012 8:29 am

When I say 1% I mean the owners of the banks and Wall Street. They are the ones calling the shots. I'm not speaking about income but the people who control the economy and currently, especially because of Citizens United, both parties through lobbyists and advertising for candidates that support their interests.

I know there are individual candidates who are independent, and I support them, but they get drowned out by all of the corporate money now inundating our elections.

Personally, I think we need a party that has a program that represents the interests of the vast majority of the population. We do not have that now.

Note: Is the snark really necessary? You don't know anything about me so have no basis for a personal attack. Can we have a civil discussion about the issues without personal attacks?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 28, 2012 3:49 pm

I'm from Upper Darby. We don't bother with snark. What you think is snark is a direct statement assigning blame to people like you for what is happening to districts like Upper Darby.

The fact is, you're making excuses and lumping everybody in together. You're taking the easy way out by saying "we can't do anything; they're all the same; we need a new party" when in reality it's because people like you don't vote that people like me get stuck with politicians like Tom Corbett and Pat Meehan running this state. Get out and vote in November, and vote informed. Do you really want Mitt Romney as the President of this country? Do you want even more Republican and Tea Party control? Do those dollars control you or anybody else? Is it not your civic duty to ignore their advertisements and become informed with actual facts? Who cares how much money they put into campaigns? That's yet another excuse people use, as if they don't have free will or the ability to learn the truth themselves.

Submitted by Mary (not verified) on July 29, 2012 1:52 pm

Ken, while the other resident of Upper Darby is lashing out in anger, may I suggest that her underlying point may well be restated? Upper Darby had the great fortune of having a very young, politically savvy person who stood up and became the focal point as well as founder of SUDA. Many people ask, "What may I do?" The answer is, do everything you can. Make noise. Engage others in the conversation. Decide what is important to you, and then fight to preserve it with every ounce of strength in your body. Enlist everyone you know, and charge them with enlisting others. And never, ever give up. It is a strategy which should be familiar to every American, especially in Philadelphia.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 29, 2012 5:07 pm

Lashing out? I'm not lashing out at anybody. I'm sick of people making excuses for their inaction and laziness when it comes to their civic duty. If more people had voted in the 2010 Mid-terms, we would not be in this position at all. It annoys me that there are actually people in this country who try to defend their inaction and not voting by saying things like "they're all the same". I would bet that the Democrats who should have been voted into office in 2010 would not have created this same mess for districts like Upper Darby. It's people who say "they're all the same" that are the reason that our President next year will probably be Mitt Romney and there will be even more extremist Republicans and Tea Party members in every office of the government. Those parties vote. They may not vote for the right people but they vote.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 29, 2012 6:28 pm

I agree with you totally. I, too, am sick of people complaining and attacking others, while they do nothing but "B & M" on blog sites. Shut Up and ACT!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 27, 2012 8:22 am

The people of Upper Darby are tough. They don't give up and they don't take anything laying down. They stand and fight for what they believe in. People who live there know how special Upper Darby is. They know that while it might not be as fancy as the more upscale school districts such as Lower Merion or others, it's still a great place to raise kids and for getting a solid education. They didn't let the school district or Corbett or anybody else dictate what was going to happen. They took matters into their own hands. That's what anybody who wants to get anything done or stop anything from happening needs to do. You put pressure on those who try to impose their will on you or who try to abuse their power and force something on you.

Submitted by Nijmie (not verified) on July 30, 2012 12:18 pm

I'm glad that this post has generated heated discussion. The purpose of the post was to highlight the great work in Upper Darby that may not always be known to folks in Philadelphia. In essence I hoped that the post would serve to build a bridge between two communities that are dealing with the impact of budget cuts being used to introduce new educational plans that haven't been formulated by the community. I would encourage the Upper Darby residents that have been commenting on this post to check out the Notebook site and all of the strong organizing and activity that has gone on in Philadelphia so that we can learn from each other! Here are some additional places to start:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 30, 2012 2:45 pm

Remeber, Philadelphia--good ideas usually start off as minority, crazy, one-off dreams. Be sure that whatever politcaly savvy youngster in Upper Darby started the SUDA campaign, her friends, neighbors and enemies expressed every range of opposition from outright disagreement to quiet skepticism. And I'm sure the first few signers of the petition felt themselves to be part of a fruitless effort. But a handful of people worked hard, until SUDA grew, and grew, and grew and grew. Then SUDA started to win.

We must remember that it takes boldness and a clear vision of the future to build high quality community-controlled schools. Philadelphia needs this positive vision, and it needs people like you and me who are willing to stick our necks out to make it happen.

Thanks for the inspiring comparison, Nijmie.

Submitted by Ian Dankner (not verified) on August 4, 2012 7:58 pm

I live in Maryland and the new casino revenue from the Arundel Mills Slots Casino is going to the school system. Before the casino they were discussing greatly cutting the school budget which would have cut millions of dollars from local education.

I also agree in using personal stories, they hit home much more than stating just the facts.

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