by Len Lear
It is no secret that the overwhelming percentage of middle class parents in Philadelphia choose to send their children to private schools if they can afford the hefty price tag or parochial schools or to one of the few elite public schools like Central High School or Masterman High School, or they try to get the kids into one of the best charter schools (many have proven to be much less than advertised), or they move out of the city.
But there are still some dedicated, passionate middle class parents who are fighting the good fight, Sisyphus-like, against staggering odds, to salvage and improve neighborhood public schools. And no parent in the city could be more dedicated and passionate in pushing that immense boulder up a hill than Rebecca Poyourow, 46, a native of Brooklyn with a Ph.D in American culture from the University of Michigan.
Poyourow moved to Roxborough 13 years ago and accepted a job at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, although she insisted that “I am not speaking in any way as a representative of my employer, and I would not want any confusion on that point.”
Poyourow’s volunteer activism on behalf of the area’s public schools is almost a second full-time job. A mother of two children in the city’s public schools, she is very active at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in lower Roxborough and is a blogger for Cook-Wissahickon Home and School Association, a Democratic committeewoman for the 21st Ward, a passionate advocate for more public school funding and an activist for Parents United for Public Education.
When asked by this reporter why she has sent her children to “a school where over 70% of the students are from low-income families,” she replied, “It might be better to simply ask, ‘Why do you send your kids to your local public school?’ My husband and I made the decision to send our children to Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School, our neighborhood public school, for several reasons.
“The school has a strong teaching staff with many years of experience and a good school climate; it provides regular art, music, science and social studies instruction, gifted programming and has a larger school community anchored by a dedicated Home and School Association that supports the academic and co-curricular missions.”
As if her activities previously mentioned were not enough, over the years Rebecca has volunteered in classrooms and helped run after-school art and drama clubs, helped with grant-writing (she helped the school’s art teacher win a Cole Hamels grant for a kiln), and organizing the school’s last two 5K races to raise funds for the art and library programs.
She and two other parents started a volunteer tutoring program for students reading below grade level, and she helped bring several co-curricular programs to the school (golf, soccer and theater) in addition to all the existing clubs and teams. She also spent several years as the secretary of the Home and School Association, writing and distributing monthly Home and School Association newsletters as well as building a new HSA website.
“The socioeconomic, racial and religious diversity of the school strike us as a plus for everyone involved,” she insisted. “On a personal level, we have been very pleased with our children’s education at Cook-Wissahickon, which both have attended, starting in kindergarten, and we would not switch to a charter or private school. Our oldest son is now in Masterman Middle School, for which he was very well prepared by his education at Cook-Wissahickon; our youngest son is in third grade at Cook-Wissahickon.”
In a letter to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in August, 2012, Rebecca wrote, “…Private schools have done a good sales job over the last decade or so, feeding the cultural panic among middle-class parents, creating anxieties in them that they cannot use the public schools and must purchase high-priced private schooling, tutoring, etc. at any price if their children are to succeed in life academically and economically. However, it is the class and educational background of parents that is the most critical variable in children’s success … Middle-class children who attend urban public schools, even those in schools with very low average scores, do fine …
“The voucher and charter school movements aim in precisely the opposite direction by draining public schools of funds desperately needed in this climate of scarcity and creating a two-tier system of schools, segregating kids even further by race, class, English language learner status and disability. Indeed, as the CREDO study by Stanford University shows, charter schools do not provide better educational opportunities; many provide worse.”
Poyourow has also been active with Parents United (and also with Education Voters PA, which organizes parents on the state level), which has had a focus on the School District’s budget, policies and priorities since its founding in 2006. It has been a watchdog throughout the tenure of several past superintendents, publicizing skewed budget priorities and ballooning vendor contract spending, especially under Superintendents Vallas and Ackerman. Members, including Poyourow, have testified at School Reform Commission and City Council budget hearings, organized Home and School Associations across the city to sign onto statements regarding budget priorities, and they have won several victories on that front.
“There are many parents,” said Poyourow, “like me at public schools across the city, including at schools in the Chestnut Hill Local’s prime area of readership (i.e., Jenks, Henry and Houston), working to support their schools and, by extension, their neighborhoods as well.”
For more information, visit parentsunitedphila.com.