Helen Gym is a former Notebook editor and a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and accountability in the public schools. She is a board member at Asian Americans United, a Chinatown-based community organization active in education, youth leadership, immigrant rights, and community development; an associate editor with Rethinking Schools, a national social justice teaching journal; and one of the co-founders of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School founded by Asian Americans United in 2005. Pacific Citizen named Helen their Outstanding Asian Pacific American Community Leader of the Year in 2011, and she was the Philadelphia Inquirer's "Citizen of the Year" in December 2007 for her work in education, immigration and community activism.
City Council yesterday proved once again that Philadelphia’s schoolchildren come second to politicking. Instead of following through on its promise to guarantee the District at least $50 million -- a promise it made last August, when Superintendent William Hite refused to open schools otherwise -- City Council’s finance committee moved forward with a bill to halve that amount to $27 million.
It seems inconceivable for Council to behave in this manner, especially at a time when District finances have never been more dire. If City Council doesn’t move on filling the basic budget gap, the District will be forced to pass an obscene budget that will lay off staff and see class sizes go through the roof. The PR damage and the loss of internal capacity at the District is not something that can be made up even if Council were to later piece together funds over the summer.
Like most great things, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook was a concept and a vision long before it became the indispensable news forum it is today.
I still remember my first introduction – a large gymnasium in Feltonville with dozens of us in an ever-widening circle talking about a vision of an independent media outlet that would uplift the voices and concerns of parents, youth, teachers, staff, and concerned Philadelphians about our schools. I was surrounded by the most amazing and diverse array of visionaries from all over the city – longtime educators, parent organizers, community leaders, and artists – who made room for a rookie teacher like me with a bewildered political understanding about education and race politics.
We came from a variety of experiences far beyond schools: housing and criminal justice struggles, the Asian American movement, community development. The Notebook has always reminded me of how much I learned at the feet of so many of Philadelphia’s best grassroots leaders and activists.
A beloved 7-year-old child from Jackson Elementary School died yesterday, but don’t call it a tragedy. Tragedies are for things outside your control, things we couldn’t possibly predict, and for which we have no warning.
Tragedy is not the right word when this is the second child to die who was in a school without a school nurse. Tragedy is not the right word when the District creates a policy by which only students pre-determined as “medically fragile” are entitled to a full-time nurse. Tragedy is not the right word when Jackson Elementary until five years ago had a nurse five days a week. Today? They see her six days a month.
How shocked should we be really?
On Friday, Philadelphia School Partnership’s Mark Gleason embraced a stunningly blunt description of the District’s “portfolio model” at a session of the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting. Gleason was attempting to explain why the portfolio model depends on school closings in a system where multiple operators run schools.
“So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally. ... you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools,” he said.
After listening to the mayor’s budget address on Thursday, I had to wonder the last time elected officials had visited our schools to do some real fact-finding.
In case a reminder is needed, our schools are barely schools anymore.
Is it fair to send our children to schools where the student-to-counselor ratio is 1,200 to 1? Or where a school staff person balances insulin-shot injections, phone-call duties, and administrative filings because we’ve eliminated so many nurses, office staff, and assistant principals?