Philly mayoral candidates discuss school conditions, gun violence during forum

The systems in place “are institutionally designed to shatter dreams and fill prisons,” one student told candidates.

Students look on as mayoral candidates answer questions at a forum.

Philadelphia’s mayoral candidates answered students’ questions at a forum hosted by the city’s school board on March 21, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Mayoral candidates faced the reality Philadelphia’s school children deal with during a forum Tuesday at the Parkway Central Library.

The forum, hosted by the School District of Philadelphia, allowed candidates to address remedies to ongoing issues within the schools.

McKayla Coleman, a student at George Washington Carver High School, asked candidates how they would improve the conditions of school buildings. She said Black and Brown students attend schools that “feel like institutions.”

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“We enter through metal detectors, wear uniforms — with bells that signify the ending and beginning of our controlled and conditioned environment,” Coleman said. “There’s litter everywhere and outdated systems that are institutionally designed to shatter dreams and fill prisons. We often hear adults say that kids should have an equal and equitable opportunity. Something I’ve heard all of you say while sitting here just today. However, it doesn’t feel it doesn’t feel true. It feels like we don’t matter.”

McKayla Coleman speaks into a microphone as she asks a question.
George Washington Carver High School student McKayla Coleman told candidates outdated systems within the schools “are institutionally designed to shatter dreams and fill prisons.” (Cory Sharber/WHYY News)

Multiple candidates said they would work to gain more state funding to improve the facilities, including former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.

“This is coming from decades and decades of disinvestment and racist government policy at the local and federal level,” Rhynhart said. “What we need to do is get more money, one, and then we need to make sure we’re intentional about that money.”

State Representative Amen Brown said his administration would evaluate each school for repairs within the first 100 days of his term if elected.

“We can make sure the schools don’t look like prisons, because you’re right, we shouldn’t have our students and our children learning in these horrible conditions.”

Last week, a group of lawmakers said Philadelphia’s public schools need billions of dollars in repairs and upkeep.

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Richard M. Gordon IV, the principal of Paul Robeson High School, asked candidates how they would reduce gun violence, saying there’s an “urgent need” to “keep our learners safe.”

“Yesterday in West Philadelphia, we had three of our students that were shot and my phone rang off the hook because the question I kept getting is, ‘Were they any of our students?’ Since the pandemic, I have had six students shot,” Gordon said. “I’ve had one fatality.”

Richard M. Gordon IV looks off to the side.
Paul Robeson High School principal Richard M. Gordon IV said there’s an “urgent need to decrease levels of gun violence” to “keep our learners safe.” (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

Former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker said year-round education for school children could play a role in reducing the violence.

“All of our kids aren’t coming from Cosby families,” Parker said. “With that in mind, they’re not all going away during the summers. So we need to incentivize our young people to have a reason to want to go to public school, to want to come to school.”

Former City Councilmember María Quiñones Sánchez connected the high amount of crime with poverty, saying the criminal justice system “further criminalizes and traumatizes young people” and “keeps them in poverty.”

“We have a system that has historically disrupted families and removed children from families’ homes more than any place in the world,” Quiñones Sánchez said. “That is why we are having the challenges that we’re having.”

Other mayoral candidates present included Warren Bloom, Jimmy DeLeon, Derek Green, and Helen Gym. Candidates Jeff Brown, Allan Domb, and David Oh were not present.

May 1 is the last day to register to vote in the mayoral primary. Election Day is Tuesday, May 16.

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