Safety, cultural competence, real world learning: Philly students speak out about school needs

File photo: Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School returned to in-person learning on August 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File photo: Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School returned to in-person learning on August 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Culturally competent teachers who aren’t just there for the paycheck but “really want to help students learn and fulfill their dreams.”

Fully cooked, appetizing school lunches that aren’t “slapped on a plate like jail food.”

More school counselors and more classes that prepare students for the real world, like financial literacy.

These were some of the visions Philadelphia students and parents laid out Tuesday night during a community conversation about the future of the city’s schools.

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The event was a partnership between Councilmember Helen Gym and the youth organization New Options More Opportunities, or NoMo, one of five groups to recently receive an anti-violence community grant from the City of Philadelphia.

Over two hours, the event’s organizers encouraged young people to share what they want to see in their schools and from the next superintendent, as Philadelphia’s Board of Education searches for the district’s new leader.

Superintendent William Hite plans to step down at the end of the school year after a decade-long tenure as superintendent. The school board has already held dozens of public listening sessions to seek community input on the next hire. Gym’s office is organizing separate events, like the student conversation.

Councilmembers Isiah Thomas and Kendra Brooks attended the event, along with school board member Lisa Salley. NoMo’s executive director Rickey Duncan rounded out the group, and COO Dawan Williams emceed the event.

Several key themes emerged. In addition to concerns over poorly-prepared lunch — “nothing about that is saying that you care about us,” one girl said of her school’s cafeteria food — students brought up a desire for more mental health support and a more engaging, relevant curriculum.

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One student said he wanted teachers who don’t just give out work packets but stand up and teach the material. Another said he feels like some teachers, who aren’t from the “same familiar background,” are scared of their students.

Many also said they would like to see more resources directed at the safety of student commutes.

“There are no crossing guards, but we have metal detectors when we have to come in school,” Nyleema White-Bond, a junior at the U School, told Keystone Crossroads. “That doesn’t make sense to me. You don’t trust me to come in the building, but you trust me outside when there’s danger everywhere.”

Destiny Jackson graduated from Belmont Charter High School last year and is currently a freshman at Spelman College. She’s still plugged into Philly schools through social media, and says it’s been disconcerting to see the current level of violence near school buildings.

“There should be no way the first thing I see when I go on Instagram is a school being put on lockdown,” Jackson said.

She would like to see more trauma-informed services inside schools, something she thinks could have helped her during challenging years when she was dealing with trauma at home.

“A lot of my burdens that came from my home, that I carried on my shoulder when I went into school, had a very big impact on me,” Jackson said. “I wish a lot of my teachers were not so quick to say that I was being aggressive or that I had an attitude. I wish they would have tried to engage in conversation to see why. Let’s get down to the core instead of just judging what you see. Understand why things are happening instead of automatically just giving consequences.”

Other ideas that grew out of the conversation included more college-bound programs, reinvesting in trade programs like carpentry and cosmetology, and ensuring that students learn key concepts and life skills well before they are needed. One student said she only learned about the electoral college during her senior year, once she was eligible to vote; it felt like a rush to squeeze in the knowledge before graduation.

A number of students also described criss-crossing the city on public transportation for school, sometimes leaving the house around 5:45 to get to class by 7:30, and proposed implementing a district-wide lateness grace period for kids with long commutes.

Mujahid Lisby is an 8th grader at Alliance for Progress Charter School. He has friends who travel far to get to the North Philly campus, and sometimes show up late.

“This is the most important year to get into [a selective] high school, so lateness on records is really not a good thing,” he told Keystone Crossroads.

Lisby and White-Bond also shared successes from their schools they think could be implemented on a larger scale.

Lisby likes how every morning starts with students sitting in a circle, taking an emotional temperature check. The teacher asks how they’re feeling on a scale from 1-4 and offers students who are having a hard time the chance to take a break.

White-Bond likes that she has a class with a mix of upperclassmen and freshmen. It’s a chance for her to take on more of a mentorship role, connecting with students of different ages.

Near the end of the event, students and parents were asked to reflect on what they would like the district to look like in the next 5-10 years.

But for Destiny Jackson, the college freshman, that feels too far away.

“I do not believe that these things should take 5-10 years to be done,” she said. “In reality, they should already have been launched a long time ago.”

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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