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Longstanding education advocate Gym to run for Philly City Council

One of Philadelphia’s most recognizable education advocates has announced her candidacy for City Council.

Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, held a kickoff event Monday at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia surrounded by parents, students and union boosters.

Gym, a former elementary school teacher who was selected by the Obama administration last year for a Cesar Chavez Champions of Change award, has been a stalwart voice for education equity and government transparency for more than a decade.

“We’re rejecting a punishing narrative of blame and failure,” said Gym, “and instead we’re making sure that the mentality around our children and our schools and this city comes through a framework of human dignity, justice and love for our children and those who care for them.”

In her speech, Gym highlighted a string of accomplishments including helping parents fight the district’s plans to turn two of its elementary schools into charters last spring; pushing the Philadelphia Parking Authority to direct more resources to schools; and, recently, compelling the district to release the Boston Consulting Group’s initial framework for school closures.

“Over the years, we’ve fought to make this city a better place where we all can live,” she said. “We might not have been in the halls of power, but we’ve organized, we have fought, and we have actually achieved real victories.”

Gym, formerly the executive director of Asian Americans United, is a founder of the Folk Arts — Cultural Treasures (FACTS) charter school.

Before she came to prominence as an education advocate, Gym was an instrumental voice in protecting Chinatown from what she calls “unwanted development,” including plans at the turn of the century to build a Philadelphia Phillies ballpark at 12th and Vine.

The kickoff event was a ‘who’s who’ of Philadelphia’s traditional public education advocates, represented by groups such as Education Voters PA, Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Philly School Counselors United, Teacher Action Group and the Caucus of Working Educators.

Science Leadership Academy principal Chris Lehmann applauded from the audience, as did South Philadelphia High school’s Otis Hackney, who said his wife headed Gym’s organizing committee.

City Commissioner Stephanie Singer stood next to the candidate on stage holding a “Helen Gym: fighting for you” sign. Also on stage was George Ricchezza, president of the school distict’s blue-collar union, SEIU Local 32BJ.

The Rev. LeRoi Simmons of Enon Tabernacle church praised Gym at the podium, as did SLA senior Sadie Sprague-Lott, who called Gym her mentor.

Gym’s three children introduced their mother, after Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan gave her the union’s endorsement.

“Helen combines the knowledge of an educator, the passion of a public school parent and the heart of social justice activist,” said Jordan. The PFT has pledged to contribute $11,500 to Gym’s campaign, the maximum allowed by city law.

Gym was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and says she fell in love with Philadelphia nearly 30 years ago as an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania.

She joins a growing field of at-large candidates that include two other prominent names in Philadelphia’s education landscape. Tom Wyatt is a lawyer and grassroots supporter of Andrew Jackson Elementary, while Isaiah Thomas is the dean of students at Sankofa Freedom Academy charter school.

Of the five Democratic at-large council seats that will be contested in this year’s election, four are those of incumbents vying to retain their spot in City Hall. Councilman Jim Kenney’s decision to step down from Council to run for mayor opened up space for a newcomer.

Disclosure: Gym is one of the founders of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a content partner with NewsWorks/WHYY, where she’s been a board member, an editor and regular blogger.

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