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Hite vows to work with faith-based organizing group to improve schools

By the Notebook on Apr 22, 2013 04:08 PM
Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.

Thousands gathered at Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia for a rally organized by the interfaith group POWER.

by Bill Hangley Jr.

At a rousing interfaith rally of thousands, Superintendent William Hite vowed to support the community organizing group POWER’s newly launched campaign to organize public school parents into an effective citywide force.

At the rally, held Sunday in the massive Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia, Hite agreed to meet regularly with POWER and encourage principals to let it organize in their schools. In return, Hite asked POWER’s members to help lobby for education funding in Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

“Good jobs don’t happen without education. It is a constitutional right,” Hite told the audience to cheers and applause. “And it is also the responsibility of the state -- the same state that has cut a whole bunch of money out of the budget of the School District of Philadelphia. We can’t go up there alone. We need this kind of organization standing behind us.”

Later, as he left the rally, Hite said he also needed POWER -- short for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild -- to help him spread the message of “shared sacrifice” as he seeks major concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in upcoming contract negotiations. POWER “can also help us advocate with labor,” Hite said. “We’re struggling as a District and we need everybody to pitch in.”

POWER’s speakers and organizers delivered a message of their own to Hite and everyone else in attendance: The Philadelphia parents that they have talked to are deeply frustrated by what they see as a “top-down” system whose leaders show little concern for their needs.

“Too often, parents and students are seen as an afterthought while decisions are made about their future,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler of South Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “The governor, the mayor, the SRC, District administration, local school leaders -- everyone gets a say, it seems, about the future of Philadelphia schools, except the parents and student who are in those schools. The general consensus is that the voice of parents simply doesn’t matter.”  

POWER is an interfaith group founded in 2010 that has grown to include 40 dues-paying congregations from across the city. Members include Catholic churches, mainline and evangelical Protestant churches, Jewish synagogues, and a mosque. It has nonprofit status and an annual budget of about $350,000.

To date, its agenda has been focused on jobs, and the main mission of Sunday’s session was to rally members around a campaign to make the most of the planned expansion of the Philadelphia airport. The group wants Mayor Nutter and City Council to press US Airways and airport officials to agree to policies that will raise wages and improve Philadelphians’ access to construction jobs and permanent positions.

A second major goal is to press for immigration reform and “pathways to citizenship.”

And although improving education is a new focus for POWER, its calls for better public schools drew passionate cheers throughout Sunday’s three-hour session.  

Julie Greenberg, rabbi of Leyv Ha-Ir/Heart of the City, a synagogue in Center City, said that while POWER’s education campaign is still taking shape, it will have two main goals -- to organize partnerships between congregations and their local schools, and to organize citywide campaigns for more systemic change. Even with the financial crisis the District faces, there are many steps the city can take that don’t carry big price tags, she said, such as aligning city social services more closely with schools. “The social services already have their own budgets,” Greenberg said, “but they’re in 17 different offices!”

POWER is working now to organize parents at four schools: Nebinger (a K-8 in Bella Vista), Spring Garden (a K-8 in Fairmount), Universal Bluford  (a K-6 charter school in West Philadelphia), and Fulton (a K-6 in Germantown slated for closure, where organizing efforts will focus on easing the transition process).

In all four cases, POWER congregations were already partnering with the schools. The Nebinger partnership is typical. Tyler said that his church, Mother Bethel, “adopted” Nebinger some time ago. But the school needs a greater organizing presence than one church can provide, he said.

“Nebinger has a great principal and parents who really have high expectations -- but like a lot of schools, [it’s] kind of mired with some of the societal stuff,” he said. The school is a world apart from nearby Meredith Elementary, which draws students from the relatively affluent Queen Village, Tyler said. But he believes that good organizing can help balance the scales.

“I’m a Meredith father. When we hear from our principal that something’s going to be cut -- we raised $15,000 in one night with phone calls and emails,” Tyler said. “At a Nebinger, you’re talking about working parents that just don’t have those resources. That really is the difference.”

POWER organizers estimated that they drew about 3,300 people to Sunday’s session; the cavernous venue, which seats 5,100, was well over half full with a racially mixed audience that visibly reflected the diversity of POWER’s member congregations. The central message that attendees heard was that jobs, education, citizenship, and equality are, at their heart, spiritual matters. The day’s emotional peak came when the Rev. Ernie Flores of the Second Baptist Church of Germantown exhorted the crowd to express its faith through activism and organizing.

“God’s a little tired of prayers that go, ‘God, bless me, my wife, my family,’” Flores preached, his voice rising as he warmed to his subject. “God is watching all of us, and there will be a reckoning. God is watching when the wealthiest 1 percent waste more money in a day than most of us make in a lifetime. They think nobody is watching! But God is watching!” Flores thundered as the cheering crowd rose to its feet. “Justice! Equality!” Flores cried. “For all God’s children!”

But POWER’s agenda did not neglect earthly concerns.

“Money is important,” said Bishop Kermit L. Newkirk Jr. of the Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church. “Power is organized money. Those that diametrically oppose our agenda have organized, and they’ve organized their money.” Newkirk called on the audience to raise $25,000 in the donation buckets, and although organizers said the final take was closer to $10,000, they said that was still POWER’s highest one-day fundraising total ever.

Hite was not the only official present; City Council members Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson were also in attendance, and Johnson pledged to serve as POWER’s champion in Council as its campaign for airport jobs and better schools heats up.

Also present were small but vocal delegations from the city’s blue-collar union, SEIU Local 32BJ; the hospitality workers union, Unite Here!; and the community organizing group Fight for Philly.

Nutter did not attend. Organizers made a point of telling the audience that he had been invited, but chose not to attend. But they also say that the mayor recently met privately with a delegation from POWER, as did Hite and members of the School Reform Commission.

Hite -- an Episcopalian married to a Catholic who says he hasn’t joined a congregation himself, but is still visiting churches citywide -- stayed for the entire event, stopping to chat and pose for pictures with attendees as he left. He praised POWER for its constructive agenda. “They actually want to do something to make things better,” he said.

And while advocating for funding and spreading “the message of shared sacrifice” will be important, Hite said, he added that he hoped POWER congregations could also provide more localized support, connecting cash-strapped neighborhood schools with after-school programs, mentors, and tutors.

“There are so many things an organization can do,” Hite said. “I just hope and pray that they remain organized and be true to their commitment to assist us in improving the schools in Philadelphia.”


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Comments (11)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 22, 2013 5:40 pm
Heard this promise before from another superintendent. We'll See!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 22, 2013 5:13 pm
Definitely heard this one before!
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 22, 2013 6:14 pm
Friends, Comrades, Countrymenwomen, Hite is LYING to you !! Don't fall for it. He's a follower of Eli Broad who is all about destroying Public Education---------ALL about ending Public Education in the inner cities so the corporations can make money by lowering their overhead. Guess who pays for that increase??? Scream LIAR at Hite and you'll be better off. Follow the FACTS not his words. Fight Back, don't listen to his crap. ALL UNIONS better grow a pair and unite in solidarity or they'll pick us off one at a time.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 22, 2013 8:56 pm
Yesterday's event felt to me like a schmooze-fest for Dr Hite from a group of well intentioned, but naive folks. Admittedly POWER is new to the education piece. But given the severity of the public school crisis I think they squandered an opportunity. What is needed is a crowd as passionate in tone as the reverend from Germantown Second Baptist Church (the high point of the day.) Nutter was a no show but he needn't have stayed home. He likely expected a challenge and wasn't up for it. There would have been no worries had Nutter shown up. The crowds friendliness did not match the urgency of the three issues at hand. POWER needs to bring their members up to speed on the crisis in our city as our schools are shuttered and our children are literally being sold to the highest bidder. There was no mention of the corporate takeover of our schools, no mention of the lack of transparency on the boards of the PSP/ Lori Schor-Nutters ED CZAR/ William Penn Foundation, no acknowledgfment that HITE WAS SPECIFICALLY BROUGHT HERE TO CARRY OUT A PRIVATIZING AGENDA. I could picture Hite chuckling all the way home. He didn't even have to break a sweat.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 22, 2013 9:46 pm
"Shared sacrifice"????? Tell that to the people who are responsible for the mess we are in. WHy should I have to pay for the sins of others?
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 22, 2013 9:45 pm
First of all, there is NO financial crisis in the traditional sense. Philly Schools were cut 28 times more than Lower Merion Schools for example. This is a manufactured crisis by Corbett and the shot callers above him. The Austerity Program is aimed at inner city schools almost exclusively. It's all a contrived strategy to kill unions, livable wages, Democracy and The Democratic Party in all the urban areas. The excess money will go to the charter corporations and will be shared with the crooked pols who are complicit. Once again, I will quote Vincent Hughes, "Elections Matter." By the way, our good friend, Mr. Obama has been a total disgrace or as Rev. James Manning calls him, "The long legged Mac Daddy." Don't even get me started on Nutter or The Notebook will delete my post. Yes, I agree, The Notebook has some Fox News in it.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 22, 2013 9:28 pm
Dr. Hite - There is no "constitutional right" to a good job. Re-read the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, you are calling for concessions from School District staff. Isn't this a contradiction?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 23, 2013 7:45 am
Allowing churches to organize in schools, which Hite says he supports at this meeting, is a violation of the separation of church and state. The Pennsylvania Constitution - Article 3, Section 15 No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school. The U. S. Constitution Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 23, 2013 8:00 am
Amen! (no pun intended)
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 23, 2013 9:02 am
Wow, I wish some public schools could look half as good as that church. How much did that cost.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 24, 2013 6:22 am
Hite talks out of both sides of his mouth.

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