In a podcast, Penn Wood students cover Pa.’s fair education funding trial from the inside out

(From left) Paul Vandy and Trinity Giddings  stand alongside William Penn school board member Jennifer Hoff in Harrisburg on Nov. 12. (Courtesy of Tomea Sippio-Smith)

(From left) Paul Vandy and Trinity Giddings stand alongside William Penn school board member Jennifer Hoff in Harrisburg on Nov. 12. (Courtesy of Tomea Sippio-Smith)

Since it began in Harrisburg in November, the trial in the Pennsylvania fair education funding lawsuit has captured the attention of people across the state. The landmark case is the culmination of a seven-year legal journey to change the way the commonwealth funds schools.

The William Penn School District, which serves the Delaware County municipalities of Yeadon, Aldan, Darby, Colwyn, East Lansdowne, and Lansdowne, is one of the main plaintiffs in the lawsuit. While the lawyers continue to make their case in Commonwealth Court, students in the district are making arguments, as well.

Three Penn Wood High School students have been co-hosting a podcast, “PENNding Funds,” to cover the historic trial the best way they know how — by highlighting their own experiences and the conditions within their school.

“If you’re a student in the school, you know what’s going on, you know the issues, but if you’re an adult or you already left the school, even if you’re an alumni, you might not be aware of everything that’s going on — so it’s foreign to you,” said Paul Vandy, one of the co-hosts and a junior at Penn Wood.

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That’s where the podcast comes into play.

Each week, it explores a different aspect of the trial. Sometimes, the students recap a week of court activity alongside a lawyer. Sometimes, they bring on guests like alumni and current educators to talk about depleting classroom supplies and issues with school lunches.

“We try to structure it in past, present, and future. So, our first few podcasts before the trial started with our personal experiences in the district and how we hoped the trial would affect the future. And now, we’re actually on the trial itself,” said Trinity Giddings, another one of the co-hosts and a junior at Penn Wood.

As of Jan. 14, the students had hosted 13 episodes and caught the ear of their community and their school with honest descriptions of the conditions there.

Lisa Asamoah, a senior at Penn Wood and co-host, said the school lunches are “not the best.” She described the buildings and ventilation systems in the district as old.

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“This is not really the best learning conditions, because kids are more focused on trying to get themselves warm than trying to learn,” Asamoah said.

She added that the issues have a domino effect on kids throughout the district, such as those with disabilities who need extra time to learn, or students who require more one-on-one time with educators.

“But, we can’t provide because of funding,” Asamoah said.

Though the podcast isn’t directly affiliated with the school district, episodes have been played during the morning announcements. The co-hosts even get support to travel to Harrisburg for rallies, and their teachers have been understanding when they need time to record.

Asamoah said her homeroom teacher even played an episode — and her classmates were shocked to hear the subject matter.

The podcast is co-produced by Children First, a youth advocacy group that focuses on the obstacles facing children and families in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The co-hosts meet every week virtually with their Children First counterparts to outline the episode.

Next, the students record the episode, and Haley Kulp, a K-12 field logistics coordinator at Children First, edits it. Then the podcast is published on platforms including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and the William Penn School District website.

“Even if you don’t go to our school, even if you are not in our area specifically, these are just students telling you about our condition, how we see things in school, how we see things in the trial, and we want people to at least give it a chance, listen, and see what we have to say,” Vandy said.

Giddings said that when the podcast first began, just getting people engaged and listening was a primary goal. She thought it would be unfortunate for people to hear about it when the trial was already over.

“These days, I think I just want to educate with our podcast. I feel like our perceptions of classism and how they affect us in everyday life is really overlooked, because it’s not like racial injustice or gender injustice where it’s called out immediately and deemed as wrong. Classism is a kind of oppression that’s so normal in every facet of our lives, a lot of it goes unnoticed, even talking to my peers,” Giddings said.

She pointed to some students’ perceptions that basic amenities such as bathroom stall doors, working sinks, and fully functional building vents only exist on television.

“The fact that a lot of kids had to grow up perceiving that as completely normal, when it’s actually not, is really important to me, because once you advocate for yourself, and you give yourself the entitlement of being angry about the things you weren’t given, then you can start to reconcile and make change,” Giddings said.

Children First reached out to the students during summer 2020 with the idea.

“We thought that it would be phenomenal to have students who are actually experiencing what going to school in a district that’s chronically underfunded looks like from their perspective,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, the K-12 education policy director for Children First. The idea was to have students take “ownership of their stories” in order to get the “resources and support systems” they think they need to succeed in the William Penn School District.

Since the first episode launched on Nov. 12, Sippio-Smith said, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. It has been beneficial to not only work with the students, but to also learn from them, she added.

“I think people are very impressed with the students. But more than that, they’re impressed with the fact that the students are speaking out. It takes a lot of courage to move forward and to be vocal when you don’t know how it’s going to be received, but also when you are students,” Sippio-Smith said.

Vandy said a lot of the positive feedback that he has gotten centers on the fact that the podcast is relatable to other students. Giddings, however, said that one of her friends thought the students sounded nervous when the podcast first debuted.

It was their first time reading from a script, but now that the podcast has picked up steam, the students feel more comfortable.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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