On Defining Moments, Honesty and Looking Behind the Curtain: How Philly School Families Are Fighting Back

It was sixth-grade science fair day, and my partner and I were so proud of the red poster board we brought into class. The letters of our profound title, "Let's Make Gas," were probably slanted a bit to the right. Perhaps our hypothesis about how we could ferment liquid was a bit well, elementary. But it was ours, and we were thrilled. When we looked around and saw that one of our classmate's projects looked straight out of a science journal, we questioned whether our teacher would realize that it probably wasn't all his work. But he did. And we won.

That was a defining moment for me. I became convinced that honest, hard work would continue to pay off as I grew up. I knew that the grown-ups knew how to play by the rules and recognize when things were done right. I think about that as I work to advocate for Philadelphia's children, recognizing that it's often the adults that shape kids' defining moments. I think back to that victorious sixth-grade feeling, and then I think about how we, as a society, are showing our kids that many of the grown-ups haven't a clue how to play fair. Or maybe they just don't want to.

Recently, two School District of Philadelphia schools were deemed failing and slated for conversion to a charter school. By failing, of course, we are talking about test scores. Test scores that have steadily declined in the wake of devastating budget cuts under Governor Corbett's watch. Budget cuts that have decimated schools to the point where parents are fundraising for secretaries in schools. Budget cuts that have made copy paper worth its weight in gold (hear Philly parent Maurice Jones talking about it here). Budget cuts that have forced students to wait two weeks for a short meeting with a guidance counselor.

But, no excuses, the School District tells our children. Failure is failure, and your school is not up to par; a charter school is the best choice.

And in a bizarre, misguided and certainly ineffective means of claiming to listen to the parents of the affected school communities, the School District has declared that the parents will vote on the conversion. The voting process, including the meetings leading up to the vote, as well as the multi-page manual explaining the logistics of the vote, are so complex it makes my head spin. And when all is said and done, the parent vote will be a recommendation. The School Reform Commission will ultimately decide the fate of the schools.

What is most alarming about this process is that it completely blindsided everyone in the community, with the exception of the charter operators and the School District, who had months to plan the takeover. Communities were left scrambling trying to figure out "why us?"

And after the initial dust settled, it became clear to the communities that the deck was stacked. And community members -- parents, students, teachers -- began to demand the respect and answers they needed. They're doing what my sixth grade science teacher did: refusing to take the situation at face value. Why can the charter school guarantee my child art, music and gym when the School District cannot? Where is the equity if a charter school is able to fund multiple administrators and counselors in each of their buildings, but the School District is barely able to fund one principal? Why can a charter school bring the promise of fresh paint and new desks, when the School District cannot afford soap for the dispensers in the bathrooms?

Being able to patch holes in the wall or students having access to computers and iPads should not require a charter conversion. Do charters have a place in our School District? Certainly -- as do parochial, private and independent schools. However, when the approach is taken that a charter conversion is the way to right the "failing" neighborhood school, this demonstrates that the School District is unwilling to recognize the glaring inequity in our school system and in our society.

It's a disheartening and messy time in Philadelphia's school system. Some days I wake up and wonder if things will ever get better -- will we ever be able to look our children in the eyes and tell them that every school is equipped with the resources they need to get a quality education? Will we ever be able to prove to our children that the adults play fair?

But then, I hear from the communities involved in these very real struggles (and you can, too!), and I listen to how passionate folks are about making sure students at the neighborhood schools have what they need to succeed. And I am heartened and moved by the communities' ability and willingness to see behind the curtain. Communities know that turning a school upside down is not the answer; and they know that the only real and true way to show our students that we believe in them is to invest in them. A Revival from the Roots, perhaps.