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New SRC member Jimenez offers a rare combo of empathy and tough love

By Annette John-Hall on Feb 12, 2014 03:58 PM

Farah Jimenez, newly confirmed member of the School Reform Commission, will be the first to concede that the SRC is not the answer to solving myriad problems that plague the District. And it may not ever be.

There are a lot of vehicles through which she could work to help Philadelphia kids achieve, Jimenez told me over a cup of coffee in West Philly last week. “It doesn’t have to be the SRC," she said. "But it is what it is, and it’s my pleasure to serve.”

By an overwhelming majority, the state Senate confirmed Jimenez, executive director of People’s Emergency Center, and City Councilman Bill Green to the five-member board last week. It was no secret that Jimenez, 45, was open to the idea of floating her name as a replacement for Joseph Dworetzky. She views her SRC involvement as “a calling.”

If serving on the SRC helps her advocate for the schoolchildren of Philadelphia, she’s all for it. Of all the things Jimenez is --  Penn Law School graduate, Afro-Cuban daughter of immigrant parents, Republican wife of a white, Jewish, Democratic lawyer, CEO of a decidedly democratic nonprofit with a radical name -- she is most definitely a pragmatist.

She’s accomplished much at the helm of People’s Emergency Center, the behemoth West Philadelphia nonprofit that provides housing and services for homeless and low-income families. She has spent her entire professional career running grassroots nonprofits, dispensing a rare combination of empathy and tough love.

“At my core, I believe no one signs up for a difficult life,” Jimenez said. “If you start from that premise, you can listen to people’s stories.”

At the same time, the conservative in her believes too much compassion can be a destabilizer. “What changes people's beliefs is the struggle of doing something difficult and succeeding at it and taking pride in it. That’s when you become aware of your own potential.”

Her role at the Emergency Center, and now at the School Reform Commission, is one of connecting resources.

“The state is the piggy bank with no control over expenditures and the city has no control over revenue,” Jimenez said. “The SRC should be a steward over both.”

Indeed, her SRC work seems a natural extension of her work at the People's Emergency Center, where 60 percent of the mothers who access services lack a high school diploma or a GED.

“Education,” she said, “is the world’s most durable good. It’s the only thing you can acquire that no one can take away from you. So the question is, how do we give that to more people?”

The District faces at least a $300 million shortfall between what it has and what it needs, which has resulted in layoffs, cuts in basic services and the city scrambling for one-time budgetary Band-Aids. Clearly, the District’s money problems have been well-reported, but what tends to get lost at the table of competing financial interests are the students themselves.

Jimenez hopes to change the topic of conversation from “financial crisis” to “educational achievement.”

““How do we get parents to understand [whether] their child’s school is delivering expected outcomes, like character-building, citizenship, learning to read at grade level?" she said. “What are schools doing to ensure success?”

For her part, Jimenez plans to visit a lot of schools, do a lot of listening and a lot of asking questions before forming opinions. And she does have questions. For instance, after reading a PennCAN study, which shows that Asian students, many of whom deal with language deficiencies, academically soar above other minority students, she asked the District for data that parses out immigrant student achievement.

Her theory? As a child of immigrants, “You’re not [succeeding] just for you. You’ve got the weight of the family on you. That was the script I lived as a child. I owed it to my parents to do my best.”

As a Corbett appointee, Jimenez has already received her share of scrutiny. State Sen. Vincent Hughes, one of two dissenters on her confirmation vote, asked of Green and Jimenez: “Where do they sit in terms of the governor's views? Where do they sit in terms of their own views?"

Although she may differ with  Democratic stakeholders regarding the process, Jimenez is secure in knowing that ensuring successful outcomes for Philadelphia students is a nonpartisan goal.

“We’ll look at the evidence of what works and then craft strategies,” she said. "If we view each other as adversaries, we shut down the conversation. And what’s the point of that?”

Annette John-Hall is the director of Mighty Writers West.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (23)

Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on February 12, 2014 6:19 pm
So what we actually have (once again) is a very accomplished person in their own field who has not a shred of education experience and thinks that people like PennCAN are honest education reformers. In other words, just more of the same on the SRC as we've had for the last dozen years. Then, of course, you have her already saying inane things, with the whole "changing the conversation" comment showing just how clueless she is on what we face in our schools every day. This is just more "reform" nonsense that ignores the basic problems of trying to run a school district on an ever-shortening shoestring while calling for ever-increasing results. She asks how we're "ensuring success" without ever stopping to ask "can we get the students what they need to fully succeed in the first place?" Unfortunately for our students, the answer right now is mostly "no". To give those who don't teach a picture, just take my situation. I'm currently teaching biology (a Keystone subject, for goodness sake) at an academic magnet high school but have only been able to order a very limited set of lab supplies and specimens for my students. They'll only do one dissection this year (frogs, because they're the cheapest vertebrate specimen I can buy) while the kids in suburban districts will do three or four. Everything works out like that; our principal has given us as much as possible for our budget, but the money just isn't there. I've already spent about $500 from my own pocket just on lab supplies and consumables this year (and that's not including my other out-of-pocket expenses for our regular classroom supplies, etc.) and I expect I'll need to drop at least another $500. If Ms. Jimenez wants to know what we do to ensure student success, that answer for me and my fellow science teachers is "anything we have to to get them what they need". In general, the "new" SRC isn't going to be any better or different than the old one. Until we have some actual education professionals setting education policy and we have the funds to actually carry out that policy properly, anything else is going to have about the effect of a fart in a hurricane.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 7:37 pm
This bs criticism of "no experience" raises its head again. As if experience in a failing organization like the SDP is the sole qualification for an oversight position of the same entity. Basically, this is a formula for zero accountability. A board comprised only of the interest groups benefiting from the school system (never mind any voice for the taxpayers funding it). The SRC is an oversight board much like a board of directors. In fact, for private corporations there is a requirement that the majority of the directors come from outside the company to prevent self-dealing. Which I guess is the point of those criticizing anyone with an outside perspective- outsiders make it more difficult for these interest groups inside the district to pressure cronies into giving them sweet deals at the district's/taxpayers/childrens expense.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 9:47 pm
I have no idea what this post means, seriously.
Submitted by tom-104 on February 12, 2014 9:19 pm
Education is not a business. It never has been. Why is it that the people in the community and the people who are given the responsibility for educating the next generation are an "interest group" (horrors!) Why are people coming from outside the district coming to make a profit off of the students are not seen as the ones who have an interest which has nothing to do with education. Kids for cash!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 10:53 pm
Would you want a surgeon who has no experience operating on you? Would you want your medical care turned over to business interests who tell doctors how to do their job? Would you want to hire a lawyer who has no information about you or your community and just goes by the book? You have bought into the ALEC agenda. Starve the public schools to make them a "failing organization" and then privatize them so corporate interests can have access to tax dollars.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2014 9:25 am
Lol. No I want my medical care decisions turned over to a bunch of political hacks in dc. Your other analogies make as little sense. The district should be accountable to the wider citizenry, not just the insider interests in the district and Ed establishment. That means an independent board. Independent means not comprised of insider interests. The fact that so many of you find these basic concepts of governance so difficult to understand help explain a lot about the districts historic performance.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on February 13, 2014 11:19 am
I hate to tell you, but unless you pay all your medical expenses out-of-pocket, your healthcare decisions are controlled by a drone who works for your insurance company at the behest of that company's executives (and through them, their BoD, for that matter) for their profit rather than for your benefit and often to your detriment. The only thing the ACA (to which you are doubtless referring) did was make these vultures play a bit more fairly with the rest of us who depend on our health insurance. If you really think that constitutes healthcare decisions being controlled by any government entity at any level, please feel free to point out exactly which ones and how they are doing so. I won't be holding my breath until you give a coherent answer to that challenge, since I detest passing out from lack of oxygen. But it hardly surprises me that you're as clueless on this point as you obviously are on education. I hope you enjoy living in ALEC's America, because the odds are you won't be able to enjoy it for long unless you're already in the top 0.1%. If you aren't, then you're willingly being take for the ride that you never come back from, all in the name of corporate profits you'll never share in and wealth you'll never see, both disguised as "free market capitalism" but actually nothing more than old-fashioned plutocracy going by a new name.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2014 4:13 pm
I'm not clueless. Whether it is insurance (heavily regulated by states), ACA (adding a layer of federal) or single payer, no one just lets Doctor's run the healthcare system with no oversight from those outside the profession. But really this is a foolish sidebar. I actually like single payer compared to the alternatives. I guess the original point to which I responded too snarkily is that we should seek to replicate the gross inefficiencies and spiraling costs of our healthcare system in education... Or something. This idea that only people inside the institution are qualified to govern and provide oversight to the system is foolish. What other institutions operate in this manner? Catholic church? Any successful institutions?
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on February 13, 2014 5:48 pm
Neither insurance companies or governments at any level oversee doctors based on what non-medical professionals think. That is something entirely different: insurance companies don't do it at all and governments only in particular ways and not by interfering directly in medical decisions. Their power is in medical licensing, which has nothing to do with specific healthcare decisions or treatments (that's what the insurance companies do, as I pointed out above.) If you'd care to examine those who do actually have oversight of doctors (state medical boards) you'll find that they're composed to have at least a majority of doctors as board members and often must include other medical professionals as well. Our own Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine is a fine example. Once again, your analogies fall apart under scrutiny. Really, you should remember the First Rule of Holes at this point.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2014 5:05 pm
The closest analog to the SRC would be the BOD of a public health system like HHC in NYC. On HHC's board like all public health system boards, experienced practitioners in various fields of medicine are well-represented among its members including physicians who are staff at HHC facilities. We would never consider creating a supervisory organization in healthcare that intentionally excludes experienced practitioners as is the case with SRC. Nor would we allow a shadow, entirely beyond public control supervisory entity (PSP) to be established. Moreover, at the state and federal levels, supervisory and regulatory entities are always led by experienced practitioners of medicine and health administration. In education we routinely appoint people who have no experience at either the staff or management levels of education. We need look no further than the dilettante at USDOE whose primary qualification is being Obama's buddy. There isn't anything wrong with external oversight. However, I can't think of any significant area of provision of services to the public where we are so certain that the best course of action is to exclude people with relevant expertise and experience in the field when organizing a supervisory body. You couldn't have chosen a worse example than healthcare when trying to argue the SRC's merits.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on February 13, 2014 11:18 am
You've made an analogy that isn't merely inaccurate, it also proves the very point I was making. No business worth their salt has most of their BoD composed of people with no business experience. They'll salt a few big names from other fields onto a Board just to give some extra prestige, but the vast majority will always be experienced business people who know how to run a corporation (at least in theory.) Whether they come from inside or outside the company (and you're dead wrong that BoDs don't have company insiders on them) is irrelevant to the point; only their experience in corporate management matters. But what we have in every last one of our current SRC members are people who are the equivalent of the well-known former diplomat or the retired pro ball player who sit on BoDs but have no experience or qualifications at all in business. In the corporate world, these people are ignored when it comes to the actual management decisions and their votes tend to be guided by the experienced members of the BoD. With the SRC, they're the ones running the show and with about as much good effect as their equivalents would have running a corporation (i.e., they'd run it into the ground just as the SRC has done our district.) If we had an actual elected school board, we might or might not get experienced educators (from anywhere) elected to sit on it, but at least if we got a pack of incompetent amateurs they could be fired by the public at the next election and replaced with people who might do a better job. As it is, we have two members replaced by two more just like them with no chance that any policy will change or that the public will have any more voice than they've had with all the previous incarnations of the SRC. If you want to try and argue based on what corporations do (and as tom pointed out above, that's a pretty dubious thing to do when talking about education) you might at least try to understand how they operate first so you can make an argument based on accurate evidence, poor though that argument might be by any other criteria.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2014 4:19 pm
I understand exactly how corporations operate. There is never a majority of insiders on a public board. Most boards are comprised of people who have business experience, but come from different industries. That is the analog here. You insist that only people from your sector are qualified to serve on the board. Running a large business, starting up a successful and well-run non-profit, serving on city council- this is experience that qualifies someone to perform oversight at the board level. I understand you really want to have a rubber stamp union friendly board so your union can negotiate with itself. Just stop pretending this goal is about actually improving governance, or anything other than helping improve your bottom line.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on February 13, 2014 5:10 pm
Nope, failed analogy again. As you just pointed out, the majority of any BoD is composed of experienced business people, those who understand how a corporation should operate. And regardless of what you think, those members will not be from radically different sectors of business. You don't put a guy who's experience is running a software corporation on the BoD of an oil company or vice versa, at least not if you have any business sense at all. They wouldn't be able to do effective oversight since they don't understand what they're supposed to be overseeing. As for the rest, it only proves you have no idea what teachers actually want or think. If any of us really gave a damn about the bottom line over our responsibilities to our students and their education, we wouldn't be teachers in the first place. And the next time someone who knows nothing about what you do shows up and tells you that your salary is far too high (despite the fact that you make far less than other professionals with the same degree level) and you should be happy to cut your pay so that someone else can score political points rather than support the work you do, perhaps you'll understand...but since you're not a teacher, the likelihood of that is pretty slim.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2014 5:50 pm
Education is not a business, period. Students are not products, parents are not customers, and teachers are not assembly line workers. We deal with human beings and the future. There is no other job like it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2014 5:54 pm
I work in the tech industry (wife's a principal not in SDP). Here's a challenge. Go find one publicly traded tech company where the BOD has no representation from the tech industry. Good luck.
Submitted by linda (not verified) on February 13, 2014 12:38 pm
Experience in a successful school district is what is needed, a successful teacher, school administrator should be on the SRC not this chick....good intentions and listening skills do not pay the rent nor fix the fence. Linda K.
Submitted by ProPublicEducation (not verified) on February 12, 2014 7:50 pm
Well said!
Submitted by ProPublicEducation (not verified) on February 12, 2014 7:45 pm
Just to clarify. Well said, Stewart!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 9:58 pm
Last week everyone loved this pick. Now she's lacks experience in education. That means she understands the need for new work rules that eliminate seniority. Looks like she's got enough experience to know that the teaching force at the district needs a good scrubbing. She's got my vote.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 9:27 pm
And your prejudice is based on what? A scrubbing?? What is this Charles Dickens?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2014 7:20 am
No one "loved this pick", we just didn't know anything about her except she was appointed by Corbett. The worst fears are realized. She is a sycophantic follower of ALEC following Governor Corbett.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on February 13, 2014 9:44 am
It is incorrect and irresponsible to say that Ms. Jiminez received "her share of scrutiny". Senator Hughes would not confirm her because she chose not to explain her positions on anything before her confirmation. That is Ms. John-Hall's idea of scrutiny? How do we know that her SRC work is an "extension" of anything when she has not even started? It does not appear, from comments she has made after her confirmation, that her compassion extends to those who teach and work in the public schools.
Submitted by Eileen M. DiFranco (not verified) on February 13, 2014 4:18 pm
Jimenez stated in an interview last night on WHYY that she was going to "tamp down" the discussion about the budget. She left out the fact that the budget is the reason for the terrible conditions our children are now experiencing. Will she try to change the narrative so that somehow the budget is not the reason why our kids don't have enough support staff and why we began schools with no counselors? Are we supposed to ignore the fact that the governor deliberately withheld 45 million dollars from the school district, only to deliver it after one of our students died? Then Jimenez went on to say that she spoke to a principal who mourned the loss of some teachers due to an implied the implied "bad" union policy of last hired, first fired. Again, those teachers were laid off because of Governor Corbett's budget, the thing that must not be mentioned. How far will Jimenez carry this "tamping" down the discussion about the very thing that has hamstrung our city's schools?

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