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October 2010 Vol. 18. No. 2 Focus on School Funding

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Parallel worlds: Two schools a short journey apart

At Lower Merion, students have steady support. That's hard to sustain at Overbrook.

By by Bill Hangley, Jr. on Sep 24, 2010 12:31 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

It's just a few miles from Overbrook High School (left) at 59th Street and Lancaster Avenue across City Avenue to the new building that houses Lower Merion High School.

The two schools are less than four miles apart. But what separates Lower Merion High from Overbrook High is more than distance.

On a balmy night in early September, the parents of new freshmen are streaming through Lower Merion’s gleaming glass doors. They file down the halls into a soaring auditorium that smells like a new car. There, Principal Sean Hughes welcomes them to a brand new building and a world of high expectations.

“There’s a pool, there’s a greenhouse, there’s a courtyard. All of the classrooms are state-of-the-art, with the kind of technology you’d expect to find at a university,” he said. Lower Merion is the region’s highest-spending district, and it shows. But tonight, Hughes and his staff spend almost no time talking about their impressive new facility.

Instead, they talk about people. For a full hour, they lay out the web of support that helps keep the school’s graduation rates near 100 percent, with eight out of ten graduates going to four-year colleges.

They describe supervised study halls, teachers’ office hours, and a battery of counselors and services. They introduce online report cards and assignment guides. They promise every child a personal counselor, scheduled guidance meetings, and a laptop computer to access the school’s digital network.

In the audience is Juanita Kerber, a new resident whose daughter just finished four happy years at a Philadelphia public school, Greenfield Elementary. Her qualms about the transition didn’t last long. “I met with her guidance counselor last week,” Kerber said. “And she said to Jasmine, ‘With your grades, have you ever considered honors classes?’ Instantly, I felt that the support was here to make you better than what you are.”

Also here are Sharon and Jerry Jacobs, who are sending their second child to Lower Merion. “The school won’t let the kids fall through the cracks,” said Sharon. “They’ve got the resources, and the expectation is for them to live up to their abilities.”

 “Nobody likes paying taxes,” he said. But the school’s high quality draws people, and “the property values more than compensate for the investments.”

In nearby Ardmore, Alicia Goff lives with her father in a modest twin on a quiet street. The Lower Merion senior is happy in school and excited about her prospects. But she says her story could have been much different if the district hadn’t intervened in middle school, when her reading problems emerged. Her teachers steered her into a special class. “I hated it,” she said. “But it worked. I’m really grateful for that.”

Once in high school, focused attention and a carefully constructed curriculum got her past her academic problems. “They do consistency,” said her father, Roger. “And they can afford to sustain it, where other schools would just let it fall apart.”

Alicia knows she’s fortunate. “I have friends in the Philly system,” she said. “My friend was telling me about the cafeteria in her school. A bunch of the stools were broken, and there was nowhere to sit. The school would say, ‘We had to spend the money on textbooks.’

 “It’s a whole different world,” said Alicia – just a few minutes away.

Markeeta Hudgens agrees. “Lower Merion is not far from Overbrook High School – not far at all,” she said. “How can you be not even 10 minutes away from another school, and have so much less?”

Hudgens, who graduated from Overbrook last June, is asking a profound question.

Wealthy, White suburban school districts abut poor ones serving students of color all over the country, and it’s common to see stark differences in their property values and their ability to raise taxes to pay for schools.

Years of government policies at all levels played a role in those divides, though they sometimes seem like part of the natural order. But many young people, like Hudgens, see the unfairness in it.

Now, a few days after Labor Day, she’s sitting in a lounge at Cheyney University. College was a priority she set for herself. “I know it sounds crazy, but in many people’s lives, we don’t have people pushing us,” she said. “Even our parents.”

Hudgens credits Overbrook with providing just enough. Honors classes honed her writing skills. Hard-working teachers gave her respect and support. Advisors in the Student Success Center – a room with a handful of computers and a small staff, funded by a federal grant, open to students on their lunch breaks – guided her through college applications. “It would have been hard, doing it alone,” she said. “It would have got done, but maybe not in this way.”

But she also feels keenly that at a school with a 47 percent graduation rate, she’s the exception, not the rule.

“Kids get scared. They don’t know if they can make it,” she said. “With their fear, they pull out.”

Looking back, she feels that Overbrook simply didn’t have the resources to reel those students in. She’s seen the state costing-out study. Lower Merion spends almost $26,000 per student each year, against Philadelphia’s less than $13,000. To her, that explained her sense that the school never quite had enough of anything.

“You couldn’t take the textbooks home. They were all outdated,” she said. “They have basketball, football – but most of the [equipment] was handed down, out of date. There was a dance squad trying to form, but there was no funding for that. A band, no funding for that. It’s not like being an underdog – it’s like not even being in the competition at all.”

At Cheyney, she already feels like she’s playing catch-up. “I don’t feel like I’m prepared like I should be,” she said, “Other kids are more advanced. They have more knowledge.”

She says she won’t give up. But she can’t say the same of most Overbrook students. “We’re not trained to push,” she said. “We’re trained to let it flow. That’s the culture. People become numb. You don’t react.”

On a bright sunny day in mid-September, Overbrook’s principal is standing at a lectern in the library, saying the school can’t solve that problem alone.

“I’ve got a group of kids that’s going to go to college. Their parents have already sown that seed,” said Ethelyn Young. “But I got a mass of kids who, nobody told them that was a possibility. You got to reach out to the masses.”

The only solution is partnerships, she says, and that’s why she’s happy today. Mayor Michael Nutter, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and the head of Millersville University have arrived to announce an expansion of the Student Success Center. It’s gone from half a dozen computers to 30. It’s added extra staff and support.

Earlier in the day, Young announced the partnership to a cheering auditorium full of juniors and seniors. When one guest asked the students how many planned to go to college, almost every hand shot up.

But later, Young explains the reality. Of a typical freshman class of 380, she says, only about 100 will go on to college. “And you want to know how many actually graduate? That’s a different story,” she said.

Young is nothing if not optimistic. She arrived seven years ago to a school in disarray. Things have slowly improved, she says. Teachers work yeoman’s hours to provide extracurricular support. The number of AP classes has gone from two to five. The school now owns nine “laptop carts,” each with about 30 computers. A wide range of partners contribute after school programming, special classes for returning students, career training, and more.

The single biggest factor behind many of these recent improvements is a three-year, $6 million grant from the federal Department of Labor – a grant for which only “persistently dangerous” schools were eligible. That funds the laptops, extra teachers and staff, many programs, and perhaps most importantly, the Student Success Center.

The problem, says Young, is that after next year, the money runs out.

In Lower Merion, district superintendent Chris McGinley says hard times mean leaner budgets. “Lower Merion is not immune to the broader economy,” he said. But the vast majority of support systems at Lower Merion High are built into the very fabric of its budget. A family like the Goffs can count on them not just for a year or two, but for an educational lifetime.

At Overbrook, it’s the opposite story. “There’s no longevity to anything,” said Young. “We’re just now getting [the Success Center] up and running. We have this year, and all of next year. Then I think that’s it.

“I’ll keep the computers. But who’s going to staff it? I don’t have the staff,” she said. “I’ve got to figure out how to sustain these things. Because the kids keep coming.”

       vs Lower Merion
1,595 Student enrollment 1,542
98% % African American 10%
1% % White 82%
0% % Asian 6%
1% % Latino 2%
83% % Low Income 7%
47% Graduation rate 98%

Average daily abseenteeism

16% PSSA Math -
% proficient
25% PSSA Reading - % proficient 92%

Sources: Pa. Dept. of Education, School District of Philadelphia

About the Author

Bill Hangley, Jr. is a freelance writer based in West Philadelphia.

Comments (13)

Submitted by Renaissanced (not verified) on September 24, 2010 7:53 pm

Maybe the school district needs to shave some of those huge salaries at 440 to help fund some of these necessary supports.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on September 25, 2010 1:59 pm

You will find a lot of support for this argument in every school in this wonderful, if blind city.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2010 11:55 am

Reporter needs to talk to some Lower Merion parents to learn just how many kids are in fact allowed to fall through the cracks. The answer is, plenty--especially the ones who need help the most.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2010 11:45 am

Plenty of kids at Lower Merion High School are allowed to fall through the cracks--particularly those who need help the most. Reporter should have interviewed more than one family, including African Americans.

Submitted by LM Grad (not verified) on September 25, 2010 11:42 am

I graduated from Lower Merion High School in 2005 and, if asked, I would have given this reporter a two-page list of all the students allowed to fall through the cracks. I don't know where the money went, but it certainly never reached the vast majority of the black students and the kids in special ed. They graduated and perhaps even enrolled in four-year colleges, but they weren't college-ready — they couldn't write a five paragraph essay, and many have since dropped out. I'd tell you to come to my five-year reunion and see for yourself, but those kids won't be there.

Submitted by Professor (not verified) on September 25, 2010 2:43 pm

It has so much to do with culture and family, as the article reflects. The Overbrook student notes that there are students that have to fight their parents and their lack of encouragement and pushing. "Let it flow" is not going to help your child succeed.

Additionally, the high salaries at 440 illustrate how the culture within the school district, pay the teachers lower salaries and throw large salaries and perks at the top, is hurting children from within. I have no doubt that most, albeit not all, principals and teachers try day in and day out to assist the children. However, if a child is resistant to learning on a daily basis because it it unimportant at hone, what can they do?

Money may help the city schools, but it is only one part of the puzzle. Parental involvement and encouragement is another, and having an administration that puts the children first is also a component.

Submitted by LM 08 (not verified) on September 30, 2010 6:48 pm

Current Temple student, LM class of 2008. I saw this piece and the comments. Every district has kids that "fall through the cracks." In Philly it has to do with lack of family support, support outside of school, how safe you feel in school, resources, funds, the list goes on. It's why we DID move out to ARdmore. And I felt blessed to do it. Not saying that it automatically makes you successful or ready for college, but definitely dont have to deal with everything we dealt with at, say Shaw MS. The supports and the resources were there/are there at LM. It's on a kid to use them and take them seriously. And it's a parent responsibility to reinforce that at home. Funding is important (especially when you have 35 kids in a room and 25 textbooks!!), and so is what's going on at home/what's going on in that kid's life/peer pressure, expectations, etc etc. Not being critical, just real. Hard to blame a school like LM for kids who "don't make it." Teachers and administrators cared about me. They went out of their way to show me their support and probably even more so because I was black. And that was how most if not all of my friends feel too. I would not trade my high school experience for anything. Like i said I was blessed.

Submitted by Concerned Citizen (not verified) on October 16, 2010 1:36 pm

I appreciate the concern that there may be issues at Lower Merion with students who are allowed to "slip through the cracks," especially if those students primarily happen to be students of color or special ed. students. That is a serious issue.

At the same time, let's not miss the forest for the trees here. At Overbrook High School, we have upwards of 53% of the students who are slipping through the cracks. There is a 47% graduation rate! This is where outrage needs to be. The community that Overbrook serves is a world apart from the community that Lower Merion serves, hence the title "Parallel Worlds." These worlds are not the same. While the assumption for the vast majority of Lower Merion students is that they will be going to college, the assumption for a vast majority of Overbrook students is that they probably will not graduate high school in 4 years! This is a tremendous injustice!

This is the blatant inequality that the article is exposing to us. Just look at the statistics on the last page between the 2 schools. Just look at the incredible new edition that has been added to Lower Merion to serve approximately the same number of students as Overbrook. Just look at how Overbrook has not been touched or developed in any substantive way in who knows how long. Then, just drive from Lower Merion to Overbrook or vice versa. It will take you about 10-15 minutes max!

We need to take off the blindfolds that are blinding us from the reality that we are all connected through this inequality, no matter what side of the inequality you are on. We all need to develop a critical awareness of the interconnected relationships that exists by living in a shared society. And, in this process of developing a critical awareness, action needs to be taken.

There is a lot more to be said about these parallel worlds and the quiet way in which they are maintained.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 18, 2010 2:06 pm

I don't think I have heard one person mention the parents and evolvement that are not existent at Overbrook. Not one person has put blame on the students and parents for not talking their education seriously. First thing is first, city schools won't look like LM or have the same resources because there is not enough tax money coming in from city residents. I pay LM takes and Philly taxes. The tax bracket in the burbs is much higher as I am sure you must know. Unless the gov matches this , it won't change. This article sugar coated the real problem. People have been getting educated with far less than the overbrook students for years.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 1, 2011 1:10 pm

Bill, you have come up with a reality that people never want to see. Funding and money is very important. Taking care of it and managing these funds are important than that. It is a circle of things; parents, teachers and students they all plays a major roll. You cannot blame only teacher. They have to manage the whole students, not one or two. If parents are not supportive, children don’t want to learn, then what others can do. I have read some where about Chrysalis School Montana ? Have you guys have any idea about them?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2012 5:50 am

The law does not make it easy for schools to obtain the same amount of funding and opportunity. This is a very complex issue that comes down to administrative performance more than anything else.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 16, 2013 1:14 am
Very interesting to see this article because this is always something I wondered at growing up at LM. The inequality is remarkable. I took my SAT's at Overbrook, the atmosphere was completely different. It seemed so unfair that people who lived right next door to us didn't get half the same resources as we did. In the old cities and towns, rich and poor lived on the same block, or one block over. Now that the new suburbs have sucked all the wealth out of the cities, you have big pockets of wealth and big pockets of poverty. Of course, this leads to all sorts of problems, especially with a public school system that is based strictly on geography and funded by property taxes. The thing about the built environment is that once you've messed it up it is very difficult to fix, except for in the future to try and not build homogeneous enclaves that are only accessible to one social class. For now... school choice?? There has to be something better.
Submitted by Jamal (not verified) on June 6, 2014 8:54 am
This is a huge difference. How come on the same system can be such big differences? Is not normal.

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