Gym: Where is the vision for public education?
by Helen Gym on Mar 07 2013 Posted in Commentary
Thursday's School Reform Commission vote on the recommended closure of nearly 30 schools will undoubtedly have a major impact on the future of the city's public school system. In advance of the vote, the Notebook asked prominent Philadelphians to offer their thoughts, using new data and maps on school attendance patterns in the city as a starting point.
One of the biggest challenges our schools face has as much to do with a lack of vision about public education as it does with a lack of resources.
That need for vision comes through loud and clear when you look at the stunning divestment detailed in NewsWorks' maps showing our city’s neighborhood high schools. Only one in six neighborhood students go to Strawberry Mansion High School. The numbers are not much different for most of the other neighborhood high schools.
An unfettered choice movement has not only affected the size of neighborhood schools, it has dramatically altered the population in them. Consider special education. Districtwide, the special-ed population is about 14 percent. Here are some of the numbers for the closing schools:
- Germantown High: 30%
- Vaux High: 27.6%
- Douglas High: 24.3%
- Beeber Middle: 24%
- Bok High: 21.4%
- Pepper Middle: 19.7%
We can rail on about choice, charters and the “starve the neighborhood school” policies claimed by the Vallas administration that brought us to this point. The challenge to all of us is “What must we do now?”
The District has been crippled by a lack of resources, no doubt. But it has been mortally wounded by a lack of vision to combat a relentless effort by corporate education reformers to declare the death of the neighborhood school.
On Thursday, the District will vote to close 27 schools, collapsing failing schools into failing schools, with no promises of investment and, perhaps even more alarming, with the likelihood of even greater disinvestment. Cheering on the sidelines will be private organizations that funded and contracted with the consultants driving many of the proposals. In their “vision” of a new school landscape, going to school is as simple as choosing your brand of soda.
Corporate ed reform-speak labels the defenders of public education as “emotional” and “sentimental” while they claim the language of data and logic. In fact, there is plenty of data to show that the shift we have seen from neighborhood schools toward an increasingly choice-based system is not serving the city’s most vulnerable students.
Data from around the country show that school closings minus a vision for re-investment are little more than self-cannibalization, where closings tend to breed more closings. Look no further than the last few years in Philadelphia. The District sheepishly removed Strawberry Mansion from the first round of school closings after realizing it had transferred in students from two different high schools just three months earlier. But don’t forget that in 2007, Ada Lewis Middle School closed amid community outrage. Students were herded to Roosevelt, a school built a half-century before Ada Lewis. Roosevelt is now recommended for closure. How many times will we repeat these failed practices?
Unfortunately, Philadelphia is behind other cities and organizations nationally that have successfully been rethinking the possibilities of public education and the role of the neighborhood school.
In her brilliant post "Are school closings the new urban renewal?", Penn Urban Studies co-director Elaine Simon reminded us of the importance of understanding schools as intrinsic and central parts of communities. She connected urban-renewal policies that decimated poor and minority communities with the current policies governing education reform. She wrote about the impact of education deserts peppered with choice and market-based options, most of which do little better than their public counterparts, on already vulnerable and fragile populations:
“Just as neighborhoods targeted for renewal collapsed when key institutions disappeared, the School District of Philadelphia's closings plan – affecting majority Black and low-income neighborhoods – threatens to deal them a death blow. When a neighborhood loses its schools, it also loses an institution that builds relationships among local residents and binds generations, while it serves local children. Losing schools makes it all the more likely that these neighborhoods will deteriorate further.”
It’s worth noting that the data maps look much different for neighborhood elementary schools than they do for the high schools. At the elementary level, about two-thirds of families still enroll in their neighborhood school.
So if we understand the central role that neighborhood schools play within their communities, we should be considering school policies that are linked with community planning and development. Why not look at school policies that reverse conditions of blight and disinvestment rather than feed them?
Organizations like the 21st Century Schools Fund and Coalition for Community Schools have long championed community-based approaches to school reform. Both have worked in underfunded systems and within communities struggling for investment. To them, neighborhood schools like Strawberry Mansion and Germantown are not the corporate throwaways of failed public policy but potential anchors for re-visioning. To his credit, Superintendent William Hite has taken a step in this direction with Strawberry Mansion and is exploring ways to make it a school that attracts more students from its neighborhood and beyond.
The Coalition for Community Schools and 21st Century Schools Fund go a step further by looping in community members in a planning and investment process, using underutilized buildings to draw in businesses and services (such as health clinics) that address identified community needs and support the host school. Such a process could still happen here. The community schools vision has demonstrated success in Cincinnati and Chicago.
Those of us opposing mass school closings have studied years of data and research reports documenting the academic and financial failure of school closings nationwide. The relentless and monied effort of corporate ed reformers is driving a visionless and battered District down a well-traveled road of failure.
On Thursday, Parents United for Public Education will be out in force with others who are speaking out and trying to chart another course. For us, mass school closings are the tip of the iceberg leading to spiraling disinvestment in public education and in our neighborhoods and communities. No matter what Thursday’s vote is, we want history to remember that there were people standing up for a different vision of public education that has yet to be realized.
Helen Gym is a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education. She is a member of the Notebook leadership board.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.