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A New Beginning: Education in Philly

Philadelphia’s issues with education have a long history, starting in 2001 when its relationship with the School Reform Commission began. The SRC brought about huge cuts in funding, voted to remove health benefits from teacher contracts, and implemented charter school caps without scheduling a hearing in advance. Philadelphia was hit with the largest cuts: 25% of the cuts proposed in 2011 were assigned to Philly despite the district’s schools covering only 10% of the state’s students, and the effects this had on education carried forward through the years.  [1]

School district of Philadelphia administrative building, Taken from BillPenn

 

I’ve seen the effects of these massive budget cuts firsthand. I began volunteering as a tutor with the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project my freshman year. For my first time tutoring, it was mandatory to go off-campus to the schools to teach the students. My first semester was Spring 2017, and what I witnessed at Rhoads Elementary School was disappointing. Every time I went to pick up my 3rd grade tutee Ciani from her classroom, there would be over 30 children packed inside with the teacher desperately trying to gain control of them. Students were getting suspended left and right instead of being placed in detention– suspended for things as inconsequential as running in the hallways, just so the teachers would have fewer students to teach in classes that were filled to the brim. Ciani went from being the student of the month one day to suspended the next. The students also no longer had art and music classes or other forms of educational enrichment.

The tutors and I also noticed was that students were being taught fractions before understanding simple addition and multiplication. They weren’t given the individual attention needed to form basic foundations in mathematics. Students were passed from grade to grade with a poor understanding of fundamentals, essentially being set-up to fail. In addition to this, teachers are overworked, while simultaneously being deprived of basic benefits like healthcare. The lack of a proper arts program also potentially contributed to subpar academic performances: doing repetitive work, especially at this stage in their development, caused students to get restless and made them less inclined to pay attention to the class material.

However, this summer, instead of just speculating whether something should be done, changes were made. In July of 2018, the school reform commission was dissolved and replaced by the board of education that was appointed by the new mayor Jim Kenney. The new BOE consists of 13 people; 9 leaders of organizations, and 4 members of the general public. The 9 leaders were diverse in their expertise and included social workers, teachers, and experts in education and economics. [2]Some of the changes being implemented for the new academic year are: ensuring instrumental music at all 215 schools, expanded art opportunities, as well as modernizing elementary school classrooms (lighting, paint, and other structural things). But all these modifications are only possible as a result of a simple redistribution of resources.

Superintendent Hite: “Part of this is also managing expectations; this new board doesn’t come with any new money.”[3]

A happy Halloween with the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, Taken from the WPTP website

Through my tutoring experience, not only was I given the opportunity to share the return I got from my access to resources, but I was also made so much more aware of what it means to be a student in this city outside of the Penn bubble. This semester I began tutoring a high schooler, Pierce, on-campus. After speaking to him and his mother for the first time, I was extremely impressed with all the things he was involved in. In addition to school, Pierce takes online math courses, classes at Drexel, and at a community college. He’s played viola with the PhiladelphOrchestratra, and despite being only a sophomore, regularly attends college fairs.

What I realized after a few encounters is that there is so much unseen potential lurking in the dearth of resources– so much effort that parents and children are willing to put in to make sure they aren’t hindered by shortcomings in their education system. Despite the huge slashes in budgets and morale, there is still a drive to achieve distinction. If we take this attitude and combine it with the new efforts of the BOE and superintendent, the state of education in our district seems to be going in only one direction: up.

 

[1] Dent, M, A not-so-brief history of Philly’s rocky relationship with the SRC, BillyPenn, 2017

[2] Peterson, Sarah, Mayor Kenney Announces Appointees to New Philadelphia Board of Education, City of Philadelphia, 2018

[3] Graham, Kristen, On tap for Philly schools this year: Local control, toxin cleanup and consistency, The Inquirer, 2018