For years I’ve worked in schools, both as a volunteer and an instructor. I’ve worked with students and teachers, parents and administrators, and I’ve discovered that despite the negative stereotypes, there are many caring people involved in education.
But as I’ve watched the budget troubles that could leave the Philadelphia School District with a $304 million deficit next year, I’ve come to understand just how desperately our students need adults to do more than care.
In a world where prisons take priority over schools — a phenomenon Carroll High School student Benny Ramos described to me as the “school to prison pipeline” — kids should be able to rest in the knowledge that education will not lead to a jail cell, but to a career.
Closing day looms
That reality came home for me as I worked with students at Edward Bok Technical High School, one of 24 district schools set to close at the end of the current school year.
Those Bok students, who were studying graphic design, were affiliated with Prime Movers, a journalism mentoring and news-literacy program targeting students in urban high schools.
I sat down with them in their classroom and talked about my own journey as a journalist. I told them how my work as a writer helped to shape me as a man. And as I worked with them, I saw more than a group of students who would be negatively impacted by proposed budget cuts.
I saw young people who had the ability to make a difference. Many of them will no doubt realize that potential, like the senior who is preparing to go to Penn State. Others can do the same, but they will have to overcome challenges to do so.
Like students in 23 other closing schools, the students at Bok are set to be transferred next year. Some of them aren’t sure where they will go. Others know they will be transferred to South Philadelphia High School.
According to teachers at Bok, some Asian students are concerned about the move because of past racial tensions at South Philadelphia High. Other parents and students are also concerned about the potential for violence. It’s an anxiety that has been echoed in other closing schools across Philadelphia.
In other cities that have closed schools and transferred students, the effect on students has been short-lived, according to a 2011 Pew study called, Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts.
Pew cited a study on Chicago school closings which found that “the performance of students in schools slated for closing fell after the closure announcement and remained low for the rest of the school year. One year later, though, after having transferred to new schools, these students were doing about as well as they had before their school lives were disrupted.”
However, the Pew report also said that parents in Kansas City and Chicago complained about increases in violent incidents following school consolidation, though “no authoritative studies have been done on the topic.”
That kind of uncertainty in their school lives can be unsettling, and that’s all the more reason for young people to know that there is life beyond school. And in that life they can make choices of their own.
Touring their own futures
I wanted the students at Bok to see what that life could look like, so I took them on a tour of the places where I work and write. In doing so, I hope I allowed them to tour more than a few media outlets. I hope I allowed them to tour their own futures.
At WHYY, they met Executive Producer for Audio Elisabeth Perez-Luna, and NewsWorks Community Media Editor Jeanette Woods.
They also heard from Morning Edition host JoAnn Allen, who told them that career choices in communications and journalism include positions in graphic design, audio production and copy writing.
She also added that, “there is stuff that’s going to be happening by the time you guys graduate from college that right now we can’t even imagine.”
At the Philadelphia Daily News, they met with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who used their ideas as the basis for a cartoon.
They also sat in on a news meeting with Editor Michael Days, Editorial Page Editor Sandra Shea and every other editor on the staff.
Finally, I took the students to Axis Philly, where they helped to edit a video based on their media tour.
But the day was about more than pep talks and videos.
It was about possibilities.
It was about seeing beyond the walls of Bok High School, beyond the challenges of South Philadelphia High School, and beyond the specter of uncertainty.
For one day in Center City Philadelphia, I wanted them to dream. I wanted them to see themselves as more than students. I wanted them to see themselves as the future. If we accomplished that much together, I’ve done my job. The rest is up to them.