Last night, I joined hundreds of parents and community members at the School of the Future for the District’s latest “Imagine 2014: Strategic Plan” meeting. District officials said more than 300 people came, overflowing spaces and workshops and filling up the auditorium at the School of the Future.

Students, teachers, parents, community organizations, and at least one City Council member – Curtis Jones Jr. (setting a bar for other Council members) – came out to the two-hour session. The amazing turnout and level of engagement were a rebuff to the dismissive tone the media took when labeling an earlier meeting as “surprisingly low” turnout and reporting most of the comments on the lack of parent involvement.

For those considering going to future meetings, and to any district officials who might be looking for suggestions, here’s how things went down with some suggestions for improvement:

  • Kudos to the District for the tremendous prep work: multilingual translators, boxed dinners, child care, polite and professional moderators (speaking for myself at least)

  • The program started late but, even so, at 6:58 p.m. District officials were still droning on through the PowerPoint slides of what appeared to be the entire 2014 document, even though the audience had their own individual copies. Is a highlights reel too much to ask?

  • No comments were allowed after the general presentation. Instead, we broke up into self-selected groups based on sections of the document: student success, quality choices, great staff, accountable adults, and world class operations.

  • The first section on student success drew so many people that 30 of us were put into an overflow room. There we were told by our moderators that we would be focusing our comments on the Imagine 2014 document. As our moderators framed the task: “All the text between page 7 and page 18 is what we’re going to concentrate on in the next 45 minutes.” Yikes.

  • “What we’re looking for is any changes or any additions to these sections, what parts we like and what parts we don’t like, and what questions we have. Now let’s start with the bulleted section on early childhood.”

  • Because of the focus on Imagine 2014, a number of issues weren’t on the table that were real for many parents: school closings for one, facilities and repairs and testing are other examples.

I’ll start with the thing I disliked the most (since some of this is about offering suggestions for future meetings) and that was the overly focused attention to specifics within the document. There was no encouragement about reflecting on the document overall or seeing if people had general questions or concerns. A few people in the room spoke outside the limited boundaries of the document, but it was hard when we kept being redirected into the specific charge of the evening.

At the same time, several conversational trends were evident, the most common being the importance of equity and quality of services across the district. There was a glaring sense of inequity, evident in some ways by the location – not a single high school in West Philadelphia looks like School of the Future (and all of them ought to have a chance at that). People had a sense that some schools had more resources than others, and that the District needed to make a specific commitment to ensuring –whether it was college guidance counselors or librarians, extracurriculars or reduced class size – that every school in every neighborhood had access to such.

Strong statements were made about the oppressive role of testing.

“How do we measure student success beyond test scores or AYP?” asked a community organizer who also noted the relationship between testing and inequity. “There are schools where kids are reading whole novels and schools where they’re reduced to reading short paragraphs based on the test they’re supposed to be taking.”

“It’s really about engaging with the world and teaching our kids to be critical thinkers,” said one South Philadelphia teacher who was concerned about the amount of time spent "teaching to the test." 

Others noted the difficulty of getting school services – such as enough psychologists so children with needs can be tested sooner – or accessing information about what specialized services are offered at each school so a parent can make an informed choice about where to send her special needs child.

And a bunch of comments focused on simply resolving basic functions – for example, organizing early childhood programs around work schedules rather than the school day or ensuring that school lunches consider different nutritional needs. Currently at your average K-8 school, an 8th grade boy gets the same school lunch as a five-year-old in kindergarten. One of the suggestions in the District’s Imagine 2014 healthy eating program is a “healthy buddies” peer teaching program where older children talk to younger children about improving eating habits. Sorry but I’d rather focus my demand that schools provide fresh, healthy lunches rather than have a pre-teen advise my six-year-old on what to eat.  

In reflecting on the night, the District should be realistic in recognizing the possibilities and limitations of Imagine 2014. Quite frankly, Imagine 2014 isn’t really a strategic plan in the common sense of the term. It doesn’t lay out priorities or mid-term steps or a realistic budget. It has some specific elements (including many that I love like reducing class size) but without a roadmap on how to get there. As parent Cecelia Thompson put it last night, “It’s all well and great to have Imagine 2014, but what about 2010?”

No one’s going to disagree with focusing on “great staff” and providing “world class operations” but these words feel awfully abstract when you contrast the rhetoric with a massive budget gap and the reality of most people’s experiences on the ground.

The District would do well to loosen up its focus on the importance of one document and listen to parents concerns and their focus on equity, quality and practical solutions. Every superintendent who’s come in has promised us the sky when it comes to our schools. What most parents want isn’t grand promises, but a baseline guarantee of resources, services and staffing for every school whether it’s in the Northeast or Gray’s Ferry, Overbrook or Center City.

At the end of the day, the turnout was the real news. Parents are engaged with their schools. Parents care passionately about what happens with our children. And for all the problems our schools and communities have, a seismic shift has happened in our city around our children, our schools and our future. Let’s hope future meetings will continue to capture and respect the passion and involvement of our schools’ broader community.

Future meetings are listed below. All meetings run from 6-8 p.m. with boxed dinners and child care provided onsite. The SRC will vote on the plan April 15th.

  • March 19th, South Philadelphia High School

  • March 23rd, Northeast High School

  • March 26th, Pepper Middle School

  • March 31st, Girls High School

  • An April 4th Saturday session has also been scheduled with details TBA.

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