We knew this day would come — they’ve been warning us, and firing shots across the bow for almost two years. Yet, now that the day is upon us, we weep, tear our clothing, and wail our shock and sadness from the rooftops.
The School District of Philadelphia is officially shutting down nearly 40 neighborhood schools. That’s nearly one out of every six schools the district runs.
Another fact that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise is that the brunt of those school closings are borne by poor neighborhoods who, in a just world, would be getting more educational resources, not fewer.
Perhaps gone forever are neighborhood hubs Edward Bok and University City high schools, and my alma mater Anna Howard Shaw middle school. For a complete list of closing schools, and the comprehensive story on the decision and reactions, read my colleague Damon Williams’ stellar reporting on the front page of this issue.
When you read Damon’s story, or talk about the issue with your friends and neighbors, you’ll notice that there’s plenty of blame to go around, and no shortage of finger pointing. The hard truth is buried in there somewhere between the rhetoric and the bluster – there are simply fewer kids in our school buildings, many of which are old and crumbling. And the truth of what’s happened to public education in Philadelphia over the past few years only gets more inconvenient from there.
Tens of thousands of parents enrolled their children in charter schools, hoping to give them a better chance at a quality education. Thousands more picked up and left the city altogether, retreating to suburban districts for the same reason. That left the district with many more schools than they have students.
Millions of dollars were squandered on consultants, contractors, and others who saw the school district as a cash cow, and lined up to get their share of milk. To be fair, many of those consultants were dedicated professionals who turned in quality product for a fair price, but many more were just the typical political insiders and power brokers who took the district, and by extension the kids, for a long ride.
We had personnel shakeups, scandals, and bad blood with each of a succession of superintendents, from David Hornbeck to Paul Vallas to Arlene Ackerman, the woman the whole city loved to hate. And with each new regime came new promises, new slogans and catch phrases, but no substantive change to the climate of greed and opportunism.
The children, those students we all claim to care so very much about, were last in line for the benefits – and the money. Even the Obama stimulus, a temporary stopgap, went through our pockets like a drunken sailor’s paycheck.
Meanwhile, no one seemed to take notice that half of those students don’t even graduate from high school, the bare minimum standard in today’s tough job market. And of those who do manage to make it through, many are woefully unprepared for life in the real world, where you are judged, fairly or not, by your ability to read, write, spell, comprehend and follow instructions, and perform basic math skills.
We can all argue until we’re blue in the face about whose fault it is, and where the money went. We can blame parents, teachers, violent movies, BET, and rap lyrics – but sadly folks, we’re way past that point. The money is gone, the schools are half empty, and the kids aren’t any smarter. And if they aren’t getting a quality education now, do you think belt-tightening austerity measures will make that situation better or worse?
That’s where we are now. Yes, it sounds bad, but not hopeless.
If your neighborhood school is on the list of doom, there’s still time to try to save it. But you can’t just start screaming into bullhorns and marching on district headquarters and think that’s the answer, because it isn’t.
When South Philly’s Stanton Elementary found itself on the preliminary list for closure last year, parents and teachers mobilized. They banded together, shored up the needed programs, and proved to the district, beyond doubt, that Stanton was a necessary part of the community. They demonstrated, with hard evidence, that their school was vital, and that the kids were learning at a better than average pace.
And while the district may choose to ignore angry demonstrators, they cannot ignore hard evidence and a mobilized citizenry. The Stanton parents, students, and teachers proved that when they successfully saved their school.
And with any luck, they can serve as a model to others.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.