Commentary: Advocacy lessons from Upper Darby
A wave of “people power,” has been spreading through the Upper Darby School District. Although it’s right in our backyard, many of us may not be aware of the struggle that has much to teach us here in Philadelphia.
Since the announcement of an “academic realignment plan” in April and the school board’s vote to approve it in May, parents, students and teachers have engaged in intensive and strategic organizing. And the bottom line is that they succeeded in getting the District to back off some of the proposed changes and helped restore $2.7 million in state dollars that had been slated for elimination.
They are doing so through the telling of personal stories and by rejecting the label of failure.
And their crusade is not yet over, as not everything they are concerned about has been addressed.
“Parents and neighbors continue to organize and educate ourselves,” said William Kaplan, parent of a 2nd grader and a kindergarten student at Highland Park Elementary Center.
“By limiting the full range of human experiences for our students, we fail to provide our children with an education of the highest quality.”
This point was made by a video with over 30,000 views that chronicles the struggle against budget cuts and the realignment plan.
The plan, first unveiled on April 10 by Assistant Superintendent Daniel McGarry, proposed to save $3 million by eliminating music, art and gym in elementary schools, ending foreign language and technology instruction in middle schools, and cutting 57 teaching positions, including all librarians.
McGarry cited both the budget crisis and academic decline as the reasons for these measures, which were tied to a proposal to “increase learning time” by cutting “extras” out of the school day.
Upper Darby, in Delaware County on Philadelphia’s southwest border, has about 80,000 residents and 12,000 public school students who speak 62 languages.
Gov. Corbett’s budget would have cut $6 million from its $156 million budget, leaving the district with a $13 million deficit. Additionally, Upper Darby taxpayers contribute $3.5 million to fund area charters that its students attend, although none are located in the township.
If using the pretext of a budget crisis to radically transform the delivery of education sounds familiar, it should. The story of what is taking place in Upper Darby mirrors what is going on in Philadelphia, and we would do well to learn from it – not only from the strategies and proposals introduced by McGarry, but from the localized and unified movement standing up for what parents, students and citizens believe public education should be.
Creating symbols, breaking isolation
Organizers honed in on the cuts to arts in particular, using them to symbolize the heart of the school district. Very shortly after the proposal was announced, the www.saveudarts.org site went up and an accompanying tumblr blog invited people to tell their stories. Thereafter, the movement became known as SUDA, for Save Upper Darby Arts. SUDA is clear and has promoted the message that what is happening in Upper Darby is not unique and is in fact going on all over the state.
Parents, students and teachers united
Various stakeholder groups have worked together and independently with shared analysis, leadership, and messaging to collect 22,000 signatures, mobilize 1,000 people to the first school board meeting after the plan was introduced, and speak with legislators in Harrisburg firsthand. The existence of a force like SUDA at this political moment stands out in a traditionally Republican stronghold.
Although the reorganization plan comes on the heels of warnings about academic decline, SUDA has largely rejected the “failure” label that is being applied to Upper Darby schools. Citing instead the rich tradition of art and music programming that graduates say was instrumental to their future success (Tina Fey is perhaps the most famous example), the movement prioritizes funding for art, music, libraries, and teaching positions over merely extended time for test preparation.
The power of stories
The Save UDArts movement has opened up space for everyone to play a role in what’s happening through the use of personal stories. Moving testimonials on the tumblr page are accompanied by images of current and former students bearing signs that say “I am not a failure” and “we are humans, not test scores.” Current students as well as alumni, parents, and others engage with the site to tell their stories of how they have been impacted by arts education in Upper Darby.