From its beginnings, it was clear the Notebook would be no ordinary paper. The founders of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook hoped to achieve might best be described as providing some “‘Ah-ha!' moments.”
“We would have these discussions about what we wanted the paper to look like and accomplish,” recalled co-founder Myrtle L. Naylor. “And we thought that when it got into the hands of parents and teachers and students, they would pick it up and have an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment and say, ‘Let's get organized and do something about this.’”
The Notebook grew out of the hope for such “Ah-ha!” moments, out of the hearts and living rooms of its founders, and out of a long history of community activism for educational quality and equity in the city.
The paper, a product of the early 1990s, reflected the peculiar nature of the times. Many education activists desired a forum that provided an independent progressive voice to help make sense of issues in the Philadelphia schools.
“It was clear that the public schools in Philly were just in a bad state, but it seemed that there was very little outcry about how bad things were,” said co-founder and current Notebook editor Paul Socolar. In the spring of 1993, a small group of parents and teachers began talking about the possibility of a newspaper as a vehicle for change.
The hope was that the Notebook would provide information to people directly involved in the life of the schools in order to empower them to demand change.
Parent voices and a parent audience had to be fundamental. School inequities that mainstream media called "controversies,” the Notebook would write about as fact.
“You give parents a voice – it's radical,” said co-founder Eric Joselyn, a teacher who has been the Notebook's cartoonist since the first issue. “Every time you give a family of a special ed kid a voice, it's challenging because that is what's usually excluded.”
For nearly a year, the Notebook's first enthusiasts worked on their ideas and tried to diversify the planning group racially.
Then in May 1994, with a grant from Bread and Roses Community Fund, the Notebook was able to publish its first, 12-page issue under the banner headline, “Unfair state funding for schools challenged.”
Distributing the first run of 10,000 copies was a feat in itself. It took several issues before District administrators accepted that stacks of this independent newspaper belonged on the counter in school offices.
Over the past fifteen years, the paper held onto its vision of highlighting and supporting local organizing efforts. Chip Smith, hired in 1995 as the Notebook's first staff person, prioritized building relationships with activist and organizing groups, providing a model for what was to become the Notebook's community outreach project. The past two years have been a time of even more expansion. The Notebook now has a staff of five, in addition to a vibrant group of interns and volunteers. Together the paper is expanding to six editions per year and the Notebook Web site is growing into a place for daily news updates and open discussion of the issues facing Philadelphia schools.
In the past nine years, under the stewardship of editor Paul Socolar, the Notebook has grown up well beyond the imaginings of its first group of dreamers. For many of the founders, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of looking back on the past fifteen years has been the ability of the paper to reach beyond its original mission and be useful in so many ways.
“It's a sheer delight to see it,” Joselyn said. “It's got a life beyond what we envisioned.”
Adapted from the Summer 2004 10th anniversary edition of the Notebook.