Dark bars, craft beers, cooing babies and a basic philosophical belief in the power of public education: Meet the new generation of urban-professional parents who just may be crucial to the long-term success of the Philadelphia School District.
At two separate evening events in the city this week, throngs of young, civically minded parents gathered at bars to drink in the pros and cons of sending their not-yet-school-aged children to the district’s oft-beleaguered neighborhood public schools.
For Tom Wyatt, an attorney by trade, that neighborhood school would be Andrew Jackson Elementary.
“If you visit that school, and you go talk to the leader of that school, and you interact with the teachers and you see the vibrancy of that school community, I think anyone would agree it’s a wonderful place to be and it’s the keystone of our neighborhood,” said Wyatt, who chairs the education committee of Passyunk Square Civic Association in South Philly.
The association’s turf is split between the Andrew Jackson and Southwark elementary schools.
At an event organized by Philly CORE Leaders, Wyatt told a tale common among the young-involved types holding pint glasses at Ladder 15 in Center City: His kids — a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old — are still years away from enrolling in kindergarten. But Wyatt and his wife are digging in to make the school better now, funding crisis be damned.
“I don’t mean to in any way pretend to be naive about the problems of funding,” he said, “but if you go to your school, and look into the opportunities to dig in and help, you’ll find them. And it will sustain you and inspire you.”
Working with the school’s neighbors as well as its parents, Wyatt’s group has, among other ventures, helped Jackson by adding a green roof, building a new playground, and sustaining the school library.
Getting a head start
Also at the event, was Ivy Olesh, who founded the Friends of Chester Arthur – a school in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood – five years ago.
That was a year before she was even pregnant.
“We first went to the school and walked around and said, ‘Oh this seems totally fine. I don’t know what people are talking about. It’s safe. There’s learning happening. Kids seem to be happy to be there. Teachers seem happy to be there. I don’t understand what the big deal is,'” she said. “From that point on we were committed.”
The Philadelphia School District has certainly had more than its share of strife over the past few years. Between school closings, staff layoffs, draconian cuts to classroom resources, and funding ultimatums, the string of seemingly never-ending negative headlines can make it difficult for parents to think that the city’s public schools are a viable option.
Olesh, who has become a kind of guru on effective involvement in schools for Philly’s young professionals, says parents would do well to take closer look.
“It’s concerning to me that all you hear is how terrible the state of public education in Philly is,” she said. “And while there are serious issues that need to be brought to the public’s attention, there’s not enough attention paid to the successes that are happening in spite of everything else. If you only listen to sort of what the rumor or perception is, it’s easy to get scared.”
Immersed in the neighborhood and the school, Friends of Chester Arthur has been able to influence major decisions, such as who was chosen last year as the school’s new principal.
Also with the help of FoCA, Arthur was one of four schools the district recently selected for its school redesign initiative – which asked educators and community members to pitch a school improvement plan.
Seeking a ‘virtuous cycle’
To the Philadelphia School District, parents like Wyatt and Olesh are a godsend: The more higher income taxpayers stay in the city and work to improve schools, the more other parents will decide to stay and do the same.
As school reform Commissioner Bill Green often puts it: The “vicious cycle” the district often experiences now could become a “virtuous one.”
Across town the following night, the Friends of Adaire set up shop in Jerry’s Bar in Northern Liberties: A spread of mini-burgers and fancy cheese for the I.P.A. sipping adults. A table of crayons and board books for the rambunctious kiddos.
“I want to see that my kid is in the kind of school where the parents are going to rally together and get what needs to get done,” said Chris Morrissey Grubb, mom to a 4-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son.
“Right now the school needs curtains for the auditorium,” she said. “There’s no reason why a group of parents can’t get together and figure out … how we can help make that happen.”
Adaire, Jackson and Arthur each share a common trait: They’re situated in the some of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the city. And like the elementary schools in the city’s already established top-flight neighborhoods, these schools benefit from a level of private fundraising and parent involvement that often just isn’t possible at public schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Mulling, not committing
Even with those advantages, parents like Morrissey Grubb admit that they’re remaining cautious.
“Well, my children might go there,” she said. “If we see a lot of progress and we see a lot of change, and if we see a lot the things we want to see in a school for our kids, yeah.”
On the most recent state standardized tests, Jackson, Arthur, and Adaire each scored well below proficiency benchmarks in math, reading and science.
Contemplating Jackson, Tom Wyatt said the scores were a “concern” – particularly math, which dropped about nine points last year – but he has faith that Jackson’s staff will turn things around.
At Arthur, where scores dropped about 10 points or more in reading and math, Olesh said the results were expected based on the fact that the school received about 100 new students last year from a low-performing school which had been shuttered.
“We had our eyes wide open here,” she said. “The test scores were going to drop.”
She added, though, that FoCA “recognizes that not every student is going to be an all-star academic,” and so instead of putting a focus on test scores, the group pushes high school selection as its beacon.
“Our initial goal is that 80 percent of students graduating from Arthur get into the high school of their choice,” said Olesh, which she says could be a magnet school, a career-technical school, a charter or neighborhood high school.
“Don’t get me wrong, we hope that test scores continue to go up, and we have full faith that they will, she said, “but we’re not going to look to test scores to tell us exactly what’s happening.”
Holding his 4-year-old son Logan at his chest, Fishtown dad Avery Amaya said that test scores aren’t something that he and his wife can ignore.
“We’re two working parents who, I think, are a little bit behind the eight ball in terms of really accessing what’s going on in the area and making our decision,” he said. “Some parents are so proactive and really on top of it, and so we’re really just trying to figure out what the options are.”
He says he’s really considering Adaire, but will definitely put his son’s name on the list for some of the city’s top-performing charter schools.
Old-school school choice
Another option, of course, would be to move to the suburbs.
“I don’t want to leave Philadelphia,” Amaya said. “I really like being in a local community and working nearby, and not having to drive 45 minutes each way. So [leaving] is not at all interesting, but it seems a sad-but-real option if other things don’t play out.”
Parents such as Olesh and Wyatt don’t pass judgement on those who, like Amaya, weigh all options in deciding what’s best for their families.
But they do hope that one day, “school choice” will mean more than just providing more charter options or more voucher and tax credit funding for private schools.
“All I’d really like to see is for us to have high quality and effective neighborhood schools,” said Wyatt. “And if it’s a real choice, if it’s a legitimate choice for parents, that’s a huge victory for the city.”