by Sue Ann Rybak

Residents, educators, advocates and politicians all agreed that the dissolution of the School Reform Committee and the return of the School District of Philadelphia to local control was “a step in the right direction.”

The new, nine-member board of education includes Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Christopher McGinley, Angela McIver, Wayne Walker and Joyce Wilkerson. The board appointed by Mayor John Kenney will begin governing the district on July 1.

Elaine Boyle, a former kindergarten teacher at J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences, said while she hasn’t had a chance to research all the board members, she said “a local board is a step in the right direction.” The Roxborough resident added that she hopes that “the members of the board represent all of the needs that the schools have.”

“We need financial people, educators, people concerned with school safety, behavior, curriculum, supplies, building repair and upgrades, and looking forward to the future of education,” she said. “There are so many overlooked needs. I think I would have preferred that the board be elected by the people not chosen by the Mayor. I’m not sure though. I feel like the main goal is to turn the schools into charters, so the city doesn’t have to bother with it. Electing the board would allow the people to put in representative who would do what the people wish. It will be interesting to see what the change brings about.”

In a statement, Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, chair of City Council’s committee on education, and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, vice chair of the committee on education, applauded the Mayor on his newly appointed school board members. They said it was a “monumental and necessary change for our most vulnerable citizens – our children.”

“We appreciate his commitment, dedication and boldness to take ownership and responsibility of this new board,” the councilwomen said. “This new board is culturally mixed, racially mixed, with diverse experience and exceptional talent.”

Blackwell and Reynolds also asked the public to be patient during this changeover. They said that “strategic efforts must be apparent for a seamless transition of governance” and encouraged the school board to “be exceedingly clear in articulating” its priorities.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said the organization looks forward to working with the new school board to “ensure that the rights of at-risk student populations are protected and that our schools are providing educational quality and equity for all.”

“This transition is an opportunity to establish a new level of community input and transparency as new policies are made,” she added.

Chestnut Hill resident Barbara Thomson said she believed that the selection process was fair.

Thomson, whose two sons graduated from J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences (formerly J.S. Jenks Elementary School) in Chestnut Hill, said she is very concerned about the graduation rate in the City of Philadelphia and equality in education.

“It’s no accident that the poorest children are not graduating from high school,” she said. When asked about whether the new board should create a strategic plan, she replied that “a strategic plan is essential.”

“It will allow them to identify and prioritize their goals,” she said. “Without it they will be putting out fires and not be effective in the long-run.”

Mt. Airy resident Nancy Peter, director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund, said she thought having two former members of the SRC on the new board was a good idea.

“I think that is a very good idea: for transition, continuity, institutional memory, and expertise,” she said. “The SRC was – and its members were – not a uniformly terrible thing. I personally know and highly respect several of the (past and recent) members.

Peter, the mother of a child who attended C.W. Henry Elementary School, said she thought having a non-voting student representative seat on the board was a good idea, “providing that there is something authentic for the student to do; and that his or her role is well-defined, and perspectives are respected and integrated.”

She added that two students would be better, because they could support one another.

When the Local asked whether Germantown resident Catherine Collins, whose two children attend magnet schools in Philadelphia, if she thought the new school board should have been elected or included more community input, she replied that eventually she would like to see either an elected school board or a “hybrid elected-appointed board.”

“However, it’s my understanding that anything other than a mayor-appointed nine-member board may require a legislative change and there was not time to move forward in the time frame the city had,” she said. “At some point, I think the community will need to have a public discussion about this, but the Mayor only had between November 16th and June 30th to solicit, vet, and appoint a board, as well as have that board and the associated structure in place and ready to hit the ground running when the SRC disappears on June 30th. That’s just not a lot of time, especially if we want to do this right.”

Regarding public input, Collins said, “There was considerable public input as far as the initial nominations,” adding that the original deadline was even “extended to allow for additional nominations.”

“That said, I do wish there had been an opportunity for some public observation during the vetting process, as well as an opportunity for the public to question the nominees before the final board was announced,” she said.

Collins, a librarian, added that it would have provided the nominating board with “valuable public input” and “conveyed the message that this is the start of a new approach to managing our schools and avoided some of the negative fallout.

“I believe that the Mayor recognizes that and is responding to the criticism that the process wasn’t transparent enough by holding a series of meetings – The Listen Tour – around the city during April and May. So, we can all get to know the new board members and they can hear what citizens have to say.

On May 18, members of the new board invite the public to attend a community meeting from 6. to 8 p.m. at the Joseph E. Coleman Regional Library, 68 W. Chelten Ave. in Germantown. For more information about other community listening tours, go to https://beta.phila.gov/departments/philadelphia-board-of-education/listening-tour/.

When asked what policies the mother of two teenagers thought the new board should address, Collins replied, “My goodness, there are so many issues! The conditions of our buildings, school safety, recruitment and retention of teachers, the fact that so many of our students live in a constant state of food insecurity, the absence of libraries and librarians in our schools, and the continued problems surrounding how charter schools get approved and how they’re managed are the first ones that come to mind.”

Collins said the board will have to address these issues and many more under very difficult circumstances.

“Philadelphia’s public schools have been intentionally, criminally underfunded for decades,” she said. “As in all things involving the City of Philadelphia, I remain cautiously optimistic. The only thing I know for certain is that it won’t be boring.”

 

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