by Sue Ann Rybak
More than 70 people – parents, grandparents, teachers, educators, library staff, and residents – packed the conference room at the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional Library, 68 W. Chelten Ave. in Germantown, on May 18 to meet with members of Mayor Kenney’s appointed Philadelphia School Board, which will replace the School Reform Commission on July 1, 2018.
The meeting was one of five community listening sessions held across the city to allow the public to voice what they believe should be the board’s educational priorities. Five members of the nine-member school board attended the meeting, including Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Wayne Walker and Joyce Wilkerson.
Harris Sokoloff and Chris Satullo, co-directors of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and a team of moderators facilitated small group discussions by assigning attendees to one of five breakout groups. A member of the board listened while participants cited problems that despite being well-documented have remained unaddressed for decades, including toxic environments, a lack of basic supplies, insufficient staffing, a lack of services for children with special needs and the mismanagement of funds.
Attendees said the new school board needs to be more transparent, develop a master plan
implement policies to address issues, establish basic facility standards, change the current format for board meetings to include more community decision-making involvement, increase partnerships between the schools and Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Germantown resident Sandra Casimir, a school counselor who has worked for the School District of Philadelphia for more than 20 years, said, “We need to get back to the basics.” She said every child deserves access to a quality education in a healthy safe environment.
Walker said without adequate resources, the board is going to have to make “some very difficult decisions.” He added nobody is going to like them, but “sometimes we have to make sacrifices.” He added that “together we have a new opportunity.”
He said the need for transparency, accountability and academic performance were some of the priorities he heard from the public that night.
“Everything is not going to happen overnight, but I assure you that we are just as eager and committed as everybody else to educate all of our kids and to keep them safe,” said Walker.
Lee Huang, who has children that attend Philadelphia public schools, said he enjoyed listening to “the diversity of perspectives.”
He said what he’ll remember from the meeting is the public’s “desire to be involved in this process.” He also commented on the community’s call for more accountability and transparency in the board. The father of three children said, “what it really means is we [the community] care.”
“We want to know what you as a board are doing,” Huang said. “We don’t want to be caught off guard. The other thing I heard is that we are all in this together.
“We have been talking about lack of funding,” he added. “All of that is true. However, we have lots of resources in our communities. We have organizations, universities, nonprofits, corporate sectors, individuals, churches. We all want to do our part for our kids in these schools. And as you know, bureaucratically it may be difficult to do these things, but we are going to try and lean in to common sense ways for people to all work together with community resources to serve our kids.”
Mallory Fix Lopez, who is an active member of Neighbors Investing in Childs Elementary, which support supports G.W. Childs Elementary School in South Philadelphia, added that she heard “some really deep-rooted concerns” regarding special education needs and the difficulty of accessing those services and navigating the use of the system. Another clear message she heard was “the need for more support” including smaller classroom sizes, more certified teachers, and support staff.
“On the positive side, I heard a lot of energy about this new [board] change and the reenergizing of this army of advocates that are in the room,” she said. “One thing we talked about in our group was that nine people are not going to save the school district.”
She said it has to be “a collective effort.”
Attendees at the meeting also had a chance to make a two-minute video statement to submit to the board.