A play about the current state of Pennsylvania public schools will premiere at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia this week.
The script of the documentary-style play, called “School Play,” comes directly from the mouths of 150 people involved with public schools, including parents, teachers, students, principles, even a former state secretary of education.
The script was pulled together by Arden Kass and Seth Bauer, both playwrights with kids in the Philadelphia public school system. In 2012, Kass’ daughter was a senior at Central High just as her son was entering Science Leadership Academy, a prestigious magnet school, as a freshman. They had vastly different experiences.
“When my daughter was going through high school, you never questioned that there is paper to write on,” said Kass. “By the time my daughter left Central, she finally made captain of the swim team, but the swim team got cut.
“When my son went off to a magnet school, I hate to say this, but the first week he came home and said he was learning Spanish from Rosetta Stone, I thought he was kidding,” said Kass, referring to the popular language software. “They had teachers only for certain classes, and the rest learned from Rosetta Stone.”
Kass started talking to people about public education, and recorded speeches at demonstrations to listen on her iPhone. At parties, her conversation often came around to issues about education.
“That turned into my rant. People got tired of me asking. But some things people said were so shocking,” said Kass.
Kass formalized her rant into research methodology. She and Bauer criss-crossed Pennsylvania with a tape recorder, interviewing scores of people from school districts all over the state, to hear what they had to say. Some with strong political and ideological positions about charter schools, testing policies, and funding formulas brought graphs and pie charts to their interviews.
“We were going for the human story,” said Kass. “Our big buzzword was ‘bloviating.’ If anybody appeared to be bloviating, they hit the cutting-room floor.”
The playwrights preferred people like Malena Sims, a guidance counselor in Johnstown.
“I had a mom call me a month ago. She said, ‘My daughter keeps getting picked on because of the way she dresses. I don’t have the money to get her any other clothing,'” Sims says in the play, as performed by actress Bijean Ngo. Sims buys winter clothes in the summertime – at clearance prices – then holds onto them until it turns cold.
“I told the little girl, ‘At the end of each day, come see me. No one needs to know.’ For a week, she came, and I filled her backpack and sent her on her way,” says the Sims character onstage. “She seemed a lot happier.”
Almost half of the students in the Greater Johnstown School district live below the poverty level, often going to school without basic necessities. The district offers breakfast and lunch to its needy students, and dinner to those participating in after-school activities.
“And we have a backpack project where they take away non-perishables food to take home,” said Sims in a phone interview.
The challenges of the school district in Johnstown – overseeing fewer than 3,000 kids – are different from those of Philadelphia public schools with their 200,000 students.
An educational snapshot
The play tells stories of people involved with Pennsylvania’s many regional public school systems, and the government that funds them. The playwrights insist it is not an advocacy play, that they are not pushing an agenda but creating a snapshot of how children are educated.
The drama of school district funding has been strutting and fretting, full of sound and fury, across headlines, School Reform Committee meetings, and this radio station for several years. This play was commissioned by the Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy organization lobbying the state to release more money to public schools.
“It’s not as simple as we need more money for education,” said the play’s co-author, Seth Bauer. The script does not promote PCCY’s initiatives or viewpoints, he added.
“We want to show paradoxes – what happens when parents love their kids too much that they siphon off resources from schools that suffer?” said Bauer. “What happens when we rely on property taxes to decide how much money people get for their public schools? We have a class system of rich and poor.”
Bauer and Kass approached PCCY to help raise $100,000 for the play. The organization is distributing “School Play” through its statewide network of education partnerships, which PCCY hopes will do public performances or readings of the play throughout Pennsylvania.
“It’s true the play does not have a hammer. It does not hit home a particular point of view. It’s anything but preachy,” said PCCY executive director Donna Cooper. “But it’s hard to walk away and not understand the universal truth in this play about the disparity of opportunity, and the implications of that for the next generation.”
Theater tends to be better at posing questions than disseminating answers. Playwright Bauer has an 11-year-old son, whom he decided to send to a Philadelphia public school. It was not an easy decision.
“As a parent, it knocks me on my butt,” said Bauer. “You’d like to think, I would do anything for my kid. What does that mean? Does that mean I’m taking money from other children, to give to my child? That’s the mentality of a charter school.”
“School Play” will be performed Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. the National Constitution Center.
Correction: an earlier version of this story states PCCY raised $55,000 to write and produce “School Play.” It raised in total $100,000, of which $55,000 was used for production costs.