I love Philadelphia’s public schools. I attended them. I’ve volunteered in them. I’ve run School District workshops and I’ve served as a community liaison for a district-run reading program.
When I wanted to reach out to young people through writing, I brought a literacy program called “Words on the Street” to our schools.
When the School District wanted me to teach writing to parents, I did so through the district’s Parent University.
I’ve spoken at graduations, worked with teachers and students in classrooms and attended community meetings on reducing the dropout rate.
Perhaps most importantly, I have a child who attends a Philadelphia public school, so the fate of our schools is as personal as my love for them.
My love for the schools notwithstanding, here is the reality: There are 70,000 empty seats in our schools, and while I understand the emotional response to the district’s proposal to close 37 of the schools that have shaped generations of Philadelphians, our city can’t continue to pay for empty classrooms.
With some innovative planning, perhaps we can save some of the schools on the closure list, but make no mistake: It’s impossible to save all of them.
I know this because I’ve personally walked through some of our older high schools and seen entire sections that are not in use.
Sinking population, empty seats
I know the natural inclination is to blame mismanagement and apathy for the state of our schools, and over the years, there has been some of that. But sometimes, we spend so much time looking for conspiracies that we ignore the obvious.
Our schools were built for a time when Philadelphia was one of the largest cities in the country, and there has been a drastic population shift since then.
In 1950, when Philadelphia was the country’s third largest city with a population of 2.07 million, it made sense to have an additional 70,000 seats in our classrooms. But as of the last census in 2010, Philadelphia’s population was a little over 1.5 million. It doesn’t make sense anymore.
I know it’s difficult to hear, especially for those of us who love this city, but numbers don’t lie.
Demographic shifts, combined with the popularization of charter and private schools, have drastically reduced the student population in public schools, and there just aren’t enough students to fill the buildings.
This is our reality, and we’ve known it for years. But in the wake of an economic downturn that has left local and state governments in dire financial straits, it’s a reality we can no longer ignore.
Time to act
Now we must do something about it. Will we spend years fighting to hold onto buildings that are too old and expensive to maintain? Will we ignore the half-empty school buildings that span entire city blocks? Will we hold onto the false notion that tradition is always better than change?
The answer to each question should be no.
Instead, I hope that those of us who were educated by tough-but-caring Philadelphia public-school teachers will rise up and take the lead.
No strident voices arguing passion rather than reason.
No self-promoting privateers offering fake solutions.
It’s time for us to take a rational look at the realities we face — as parents, as teachers, as leaders, and most of all, as Philadelphians.
We owe that to the students in all of our schools, and not just to the ones in our neighborhood.