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.
On a day that saw the closing of 49 schools in Chicago, it seems sadly fitting that Philadelphia is kicking off three days as the host city of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' national meeting on innovation.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors embraces controversial education reform trends that are spreading across the nation's cities: mayoral control of schools, parent trigger laws, charter co-location, and mass school closings. As head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Nutter has supported the organization's call to bring a number of those reforms, particularly mass charter expansion and mass school closings, to Philadelphia.
Although the theme for this meeting is innovation, Philadelphia has been anything but innovative when it comes to education reform.
Are we in a financial crisis? For the thousands of students who organized a massive walk-out today, yes. But not for a certain sector of contractors who are benefiting from the School Reform Commission’s decisions lately.
The same day that elementary school parents flooded City Council to rally for school funding and a sizeable crowd attended a panel on the destructive impact of high-stakes testing, the SRC on Wednesday approved nearly $1.3 million in contracts related to assessment and accountability, including a million-dollar contract to Pearson for high-stakes teacher and principal evaluations.
High-stakes testing and communities pushing back have been all over the news lately. Just this week, Senate Democratic leaders held a press conference opposing the implementation of Keystone exams, mandatory end-of-course state exams that will go into effect for September's 9th-grade class. Amid a backdrop of unprecedented statewide cuts under the Corbett administration, Senate leaders said the Keystones would "cost taxpayers dearly" and were being implemented "without a full understanding of the benefits for students, teachers, administrators, and taxpayers.”
Parents United for Public Education has won its state Right To Know request to gain public access to the list of 60 schools identified by the Boston Consulting Group for closure and to the firm’s criteria for school closings -- a request for information that the District has consistently denied to the public.
Last spring, the Boston Consulting Group came under intense criticism for a plan that promoted school closings, massive charter expansion, and privatization of key functions within the District, such as transportation. Under its multimillion-dollar contract with the William Penn Foundation, BCG agreed to provide the foundation a number of “contract deliverables,” one of which was identifying 60 schools for closure. The “BCG list” was referred to by former Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen in public statements, but District officials had refused to release the list, stating that it was an internal document and therefore protected from public review.
Against a backdrop of unprecedented school closings and disinvestment in public education in Philadelphia, journalist and author Barbara Miner will be in town Thursday to share wisdom and hope for our schools’ future. She will be discussing her new book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, at an event and book signing hosted by the Media Mobilizing Project, Parents United for Public Education, TAG-Philly, and the Philadelphia Student Union.