Cherelle Parker talks Philly education, year-round school

“None of my lifetime opportunities come without having access to education and it's the great equalizer,” Parker said.

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Philadelphia Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker at WHYY.

Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker at WHYY. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Philly’s own Cherelle Parker has finished her first official week as mayor. Officially sworn in last week, Parker has already begun tackling issues of public safety and economy.

But before winning the election, Parker sat down at WHYY studios and spoke with WHYY News city education reporter Amanda Fitzpatrick to discuss her plans for improving Philadelphia education.

A former state House representative, City Council member, mother, and educator, Parker says education is the key to success in Philadelphia. She outlined what her first steps will be to address the city’s education needs in her administration.

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Amanda Fitzpatrick: Tell me a little bit about your first day. If you become mayor, what would you do in terms of education?

Cherelle Parker: I talked about making Philadelphia the safest, cleanest, greenest, big city in the nation that would provide access to economic opportunity for all; and you can’t have access to economic opportunity for all unless you have a solid public education system.

Immediately for me, I want to focus on Philadelphia’s infrastructure. We have an old and an aging infrastructure and our public school system is reflective of that aging infrastructure.

The last data that I saw that you heard me talk about during the campaign was a $5 billion price tag that had been placed upon fixing our aging infrastructure, about 200 plus buildings. We were told that 85 of those buildings needed major renovations and 21 of those schools needed to be totally demolished and actually rebuilt.

Philadelphia Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker at WHYY.
Philadelphia Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker at WHYY. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

AF: When you talk about the age of the buildings, some are 100 years old.  During the AC outages there were tens of thousands of students who had to leave school early because of excessive heat during the start of the year. As mayor, how much can you work with the district, because the school district doesn’t report to you, to really make that happen where they can get new schools in some areas?

CP: The mayor does appoint the school board here in the city of Philadelphia, and the school board makes the decision about who the leadership is, who the superintendent will be. So in no way, shape or form can the mayor of our city not take on responsibility for what happens within our School District of Philadelphia.

That’s about governance and we don’t talk enough about that.

AF: In Philly years ago or decades ago, I’ve talked to people and interviewed people and they say the city’s changed. The Philadelphia School District according to has the highest number of teacher vacancies on (October 2023).  What’s your reaction to that [information] as an educator, someone who taught in the classroom for years?

CP: I am a certified secondary English teacher by profession and I taught English as a second language in night school to immigrant children and adults.

Dr. Constance E. Clayton was the superintendent during that time [that I was in school] and there was an expectation of excellence and there at that time, a solid group of teachers, who didn’t take any stuff and I don’t ever remember anyone saying that we had a deficit of  Black and brown teachers, you know, in the schools, where we had a majority minority city and a majority minority school district.  Students had an opportunity to see a reflection of themselves on a daily basis

I had a counselor, we had a school nurse, all of those things are standard operating procedure.

AF: I interviewed a parent who says her kids don’t have an after school program, or places to go to. Can you talk about year-round schools?

CP: We are underutilizing one of our most valuable assets: We have buildings in every school, we should be using them accordingly, developing innovative partnerships with the building, trades, life, sciences, and biotech.

If we are looking at delivering public education via a 21st-century community schools model, those kinds of services and support would be available. Trauma, the gun violence in our communities, having those types of support and services [including] mentoring in our school, so that they’re not buildings that are just shut down at 3:30 every day. We are underutilizing one of our biggest assets.

Cherelle Parker doesn’t get a chance to sit here with you today and have this interview without having a quality public education, being a first-generation college graduate in my family and first-generation Ivy League graduate in my family. So none of my lifetime opportunities come without having access to education and it’s the great equalizer. It’s what we need to do to put people on the path of self-sufficiency and I’m unapologetic about making it one of my number one priorities.

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Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in October 2023.

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