Scapegoating Le Bok Fin missed the real problem for Philly schools

     Bok Vocational High School was closed in 2013. (Eric Walter/WHYY)

    Bok Vocational High School was closed in 2013. (Eric Walter/WHYY)

    Everyone has an opinion about Le Bok Fin — calling it everything from a form of symbolic violence to “Philly’s hottest new rooftop bar.” This once successful vocational school-turned-beer-garden has become a constant source of disagreement and rage across our city, but we need to let it go and concentrate on the real problems facing Philadelphia public schools.

    Yes, the images strewn across social media are not only insensitive and pretentious, but also deeply disheartening to educators, parents and students who are fighting each day to resurrect a school system that has suffered severe disinvestment and societal neglect.

    Yes, the building would have been underutilized otherwise, and perhaps the stunt will generate further economic investment. I argue, however, that while opportunities to highlight social justice issues have been missed.

    Le Bok Fin could have dedicated a percentage of profits to public schools or a career and technical education program. They could have offered internships to culinary students from other CTE schools. Rooftop yoga could have been offered to students who go to the local YMCA. The restaurant could have hosted a public discussion about the education crisis over fine wines and craft beers — or simply asked for school supply donations in exchange for a Le Bok Fin membership card. Anything would have been better.

    The project, framed as seeking connection with the community, did not appear to serve the interests or needs of many. It was located in a neighborhood where nearlly 40 percent of families have an income less than $35,000, and 30 percent represent minority populations.

    All those criticisms aside, Le Bok Fin was just an overpriced, easy-to-attack symbol of the deep-seated issues of educational inequality, manufactured failure, gentrification, and the slow, painful privatization of our public school system. The overall vision for the building is innovative and inclusive, and I believe that the issues above can and will be righted by the developer if the larger plan comes to fruition.

    The blame is ours

    Before Le Bok Fin came Bok Vocational High School. Bok wasn’t just a vacant building with a cool rooftop. Bok had been home to several generations of Philadelphians and provided a curriculum rich in the trades. From nursing to construction to culinary arts, Bok developed students who were prepared for the work force and who loved learning. In 2013 when it was slated for closure, students and parents fought for the right to keep the school open, but the community did little to provide the agency needed to maintain the school.

    There is also no denying that Bok was one of our better schools and a source of pride for those it served. While it made adequate yearly progress, it was also more than a test score. It was a source of social and cultural capital for many Philadelphians. Its closing and subsequent privatization raises questions of privilege, power, and structural inequality. Sure, the neighborhood will improve with the building in full use, but for whom?

    That being said, we can’t blame the developer for purchasing a vacant building and attempting a rebirth when many would shy away from such an undertaking. Lindsey Scannapieco is not a villainous, hate-filled, gentrifier but simply a smart woman with wealth attempting to do something creative with unused space, even if the initial use is seen by many as short-sighted and ignorant. The building is truly beautiful, and it should be saved. We can’t blame her for getting a bargain because the district no longer wanted to maintain a closed building. Nor can we blame her for failed social and economic policies. We also can’t blame her for the arrogant, insufferable 21-year-olds who take ironic pictures of the “do not drink from sinks” signage, a common label found throughout Philadelphia’s public schools due to issues with lead pipes, requiring high need students to carry multiple bottles of fresh water to school or suffer from daily dehydration.

    Instead of blaming the development company, we need to blame ourselves for the time we’ve wasted debating this issue when the state still has not passed the budget — leaving a $413 million dollar shortfall for the district.

    We should blame ourselves for the lack of public action and debate that was incited by the last year’s funding analysis, which found serious, racially divided funding inequities in Pennsylvania’s education system. These inequities will remain and seep deeply into our schools even now that the obnoxious rooftop bar has shut down.

    We have pathologized our public schools and made way for the dismantling of public education, because not enough of us are trying to do something about it.

    The system is failing

    Bok isn’t coming back. No matter how much we dislike the bottles of champagne being popped on the roof, Bok has been closed, and it is the fault of every one of us who didn’t show up at School Reform Commission meetings and City Council meetings, or call our legislators. Even in the time it has taken me to write this article, I could have left 10 annoying messages with my elected officials demanding more for our children.  

    It’s true that while the city and state are unable to fund public goods, singular families and corporations have built up enough wealth to purchase once-thriving community hubs. But this is nothing new. We couldn’t have just now realized this while rolling our eyes at photos of white girls in Lululemon downward dogging on that glorious roof. Bok has just become a scapegoat for a failed system.

    Our current belief in high-stakes testing manufactures failure by labeling the schools serving a disproportionately high number of ESL students, special-needs students, and impoverished students as “failing.” Instead of using these tests (which essentially tell us nothing but how white and wealthy a school is) to signal a necessary influx of additional resources to these children, we penalize the schools by taking away funding, diminishing the agency of leaders and teachers, and villainizing the communities in which the students live. This mass disinvestment induces flight to charters and thus underenrollment in district schools, necessitating school closures. While Le Bok Fin perhaps benefited from a cool roof deck, it had nothing to do with these systemic issues.

    Our elected officials, on the other hand, could do something. Instead they have done nothing to step up in order to right these issues. We are quickly approaching our third month without a state budget. Our schools are teetering on disaster. We don’t have sufficient nurses or counselors. We’ve cut the arts, sports teams, and anything that makes education marginally enjoyable for children. Teachers in Chester are working without pay. Those who can afford more for their children provide it, and those who can’t are left with few alternatives. Somewhere along the lines our schools became someone else’s problems and policymakers have refused to provide the funding we need to ensure that all kids can thrive.

    In brief, Pennsylvania is one of three states without a funding formula. State contributions to education are inadequate and unpredictable. The localization of taxes that fund schools has created a huge inequity between the per-pupil allocations for wealthier and poorer students. Currently, Philadelphia spends about $12,500 per pupil, while districts on the Main Line with much higher taxes are able to spend upwards of $18,000 per child. This makes little sense, considering the disproportionate number of students with high needs in the Philadelphia School system. Right now, Philadelphia’s children, whether they attend public or charter schools, are succeeding in spite of the system and not because of it.

    Here’s what you can do

    So, let’s lay Le Bok Fin to rest and focus on these very real, massive and threatening issues. Let’s put the blame where it’s due — with our leaders in Philadelphia and Harrisburg who refuse to create a fair funding formula or acknowledge the systemic disinvestment at play, ultimately neglecting to create policy that serves their constituents. Go ahead and delete your one-star reviews on Yelp (like I did) and quit the hate posting. It’s not going to change a thing.

    Instead, consider doing the following things.

    Pick up your phones and call your legislators and tell them to invest in our schools by creating a funding formula that we can rely on each year and by passing a severance tax on natural gas drilling that could increase tax revenue by $410 million in our next fiscal year. Public Citizen’s for Children and Youth has a great website with language and resources to incite for fiscal action.

    Follow the lead of the Campaign for Fair Education Funding by contacting your legislator via social media. First-hand accounts, pictures and videos of what is missing from our children’s education can be a powerful media tool to garner much-needed public attention.

    Finally, get involved. Don’t underestimate the power of community. If you are a parent of a public school student, get involved in your School Advisory Council or Parent Teacher Association. Any community member can call or visit SDP’s Office of Family and Community Engagement to find opportunities that fit their interests. You can also learn more about the happenings at SDP from Superintendent Hite at the first general meeting of Philadelphia Home and School Council on Sept. 22.

    If you’re still not sure what to do, visit your local school and ask.

    Most importantly, remember that the schools are ours to save or lose. Even if you are not intimately impacted by the disinvestment in public schools, it is everyone’s job to advocate for a system of public education that is fair and equitable. Our schools are the foundation of our democracy and when they disappear, they aren’t coming back. But who knows, after the next school closes, you might just get the “hottest new bar in Philly” in its place.

    Kristyn Stewart is currently a Ph.D. student in urban education at Temple University with a keen interest in school reform policy. She works at the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy in Adult Basic Education and as a graduate assistant at Temple’s College of Education. Kristyn also serves as vice president of engagement for the Spruce Foundation. Prior to returning to higher education, Kristyn served as the director of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology in West Oak Lane, designing and implementing out of school time STEAM programs in K-12 public, charter, and parochial schools across North Philadelphia. She also worked at the Student Success Center in University City High School.

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