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Gym: Where is the vision for public education?

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.

Read the responses from:
Mark Gleason and Mike Wang of the Philadelphia School Partnership
Sandra Dungee Glenn, former School Reform Commission chair


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.

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Comments (10)

Submitted by TeacherinPhilly (not verified) on March 7, 2013 6:53 am
This plan does not save money. Check out the enormous transition costs in this document, only just posted by the school district (because why give the public time to review and discuss it, right?). http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/uploads/ZI/EE/ZIEEj0aKqhmXVGkHg-Prrg/FMP_R... Now expects the School District of Philadelphia to make these transitions in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner. No one. Zero people. This is a sad joke. Today is our best chance yet for all of us to unite and stand up to this madness. Parents, students, teachers, and everyone who cares about the future of our city, please come to the rally at the school district building at 440. Teachers, feel free to park at Masterman, 17th and Spring Garden. Everyone who can make it must be there today to make their voices heard. This farce that is the SRC must end.
Submitted by Elaine Simon (not verified) on March 7, 2013 10:55 am
Great piece. Vision about what the city could be and for whom the city can be - whatever happened to that as a criterion for planning?
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 7, 2013 10:46 am
I agree. As always, Helen goes right to the heart of the issue. No matter how they twist and distort the truth, they can not ever escape the essential question of public education: Whose School is It? And they can never escape -- the "imperative of democracy" for our public schools. The issues go much deeper here. They go to the issue of "Democracy itself." PCAPS is actually fighting for the rights of all school children and their parents to a "Free Appropriate Public Education." And PCAPS is also fighting for the constitutional rights of all Philadelphians as citizens to "participate meaningfully in the governance of their public schools."
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 7, 2013 10:15 am
Only force, united and lots of it, will change this. Talking, singing and small gatherings ain't going to get it. These folks just laugh at that stuff. The poor and lower middle class of all colors, are being sold out by "their own."
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 7, 2013 10:40 am
Of course, this churn is by design and all thinking people know it. It's embarrassing to sit through these meetings where Hite etal have the audacity to lie about their "vision" for our kids right in our faces. I admit, I stopped going to them for my own sanity.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on March 7, 2013 11:41 am
Then are we looking at someone else/each other to be the "movers"? Who has approached United Way or any of the operators of health clinics yet? Philadelphia is behind Cincinnati, in that it has a huge debt to service, whereas Cincinnati was able to commit $1 billion over 10 years to refit some (not all) of their schools. Wouldn't it have been nice if "reality" had been the m.o. when we had our Stimulus dollars? Surely the trends were already clear at that time? The missing players are City Council and Mayor Nutter - the City needs to listen to their communities, then step up and borrow (if necessary) to make these community investments. The SDP needs to revision its operating structure as well. Schools that are heavily weighted for Special Ed need a different way to be run. They can potentially be a "draw" for those philanthropists who love children and want to direct their giving where it is needed most. Rather than wistfully trying to reverse years of segregating children based on their educational traits (that would be test scores and behavior/ability to follow instructions), it might be better to shift the focus to Special Ed and a concurrent enrichment for those who are educated alongside them. On Special Ed and the success of Arts education here -Can we get the City, which has shown recognition for the importance of the cultural and tourist segments of the economy, to invest in Arts organizations residencies (these organizations to become a viable business support)? Many of these organizations are already expanding their work into education. I would think there is potential for a partnership here as well. And if it works, patent/copyright it - "fight fire with fire".
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 7, 2013 12:05 pm
I was asked to leave 2 meetings months ago so I stopped going to them. Meetings, traditionally speaking, are not going to help in any real way. MUCH more pressure is the only answer.
Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on March 7, 2013 12:20 pm
Ohio is a completely different state than Pennsylvania. Ohio has many large cities, with suburbs and farmland in between-- everyone identifies as being from "near" a city. In Pennsylvania, the attitude of everyone who doesn't live with 45 miles of Philadelphia is that it is Philly vs. Pennsylvania. Everyone in Ohio and other non-East Coast states knows that what is good for one part of the state is good for the rest. Here, it is framed as a battle for resources between two halves. Here, we tax the poor (only state with an actual flat tax). We take from the schools to give to the frackers. Corbett is being cheered by the rest of PA for actively destroying Philadelphia.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on March 8, 2013 8:51 am
Pseudonymous, it may also be relevant that Cincinnati has nearly half Republican registration. There is value in diverse viewpoints. The other side of acknowledging that only big government has the collective resource and will to accomplish things that private enterprise would not be interested in, is the torpor and fear of change from thinking it is "someone else's" responsibility to take action. Again, Philly needs to use its strengths and demographic trends. A huge influx of young people means that innovation, education, idealism/altruism and energy abound. As a cultural center, Philly needs to foster its artists/creativity while also nurturing its vulnerable (Special Ed). If nothing else, a "free market" pushes us to focus on our strengths. I don't agree that charters will inevitably be the norm. Shift the focus to Special Ed, in a real way, not just superficial as in the Promise Academies or Renaissance Schools. Educating the "whole child" benefits all, not just the most needy.
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