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.
What could possibly justify the closing of Northeast High School, the largest school in the city and each year bursting at the seams? Why would anyone suggest closing four elementary schools in Olney, a neighborhood that once housed some of the most overcrowded schools in the District?
We may not find out the answers to these questions, but we know now that these were some of the ludicrous ideas proposed by the Boston Consulting Group in a long-secret 2012 report presented in a private meeting to the School Reform Commission.
BCG called for closing 88 District-managed schools, which would have displaced a conservative estimate of 22,000-31,000 students districtwide – more than triple the number of students displaced by the actual 2013 school closings. A five-year plan sought the removal and reassignment of up to 45,000 students, more than one-third of the District.
A child dealt with the death of a parent with no counselor available during a time of extreme distress.
A high school student started each period searching for desks and chairs because her classes were so overcrowded.
A 7-year-old with emotional and learning needs began regressing and scratched himself bloody during class because a classroom aide and full-time counselor were no longer available, as they had been the year before.
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.