To ‘crowdsource injustice,’ new app encourages Philly teachers to photograph, report school building woes

Screenshot courtesy of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Screenshot courtesy of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Drawing further attention to conditions inside city schools, Philadelphia’s teachers’ union formally introduced an app Thursday that will allow members to alert union leadership when they see a problem.

Using the Healthy Schools Tracker app, staff can send descriptions or photos to officials from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) if they spot mold, rodents, or other physical maladies that can sicken children or impede learning.

The district already has a complaint process for employees, but this new tool allows teachers to report problems digitally and directly to the union.

Though the official announcement came Thursday, the app has been available since early December and so far, the PFT says it has received complaints from 18 schools, according to its website.

The district concedes — and has indeed drawn attention to the fact — that its aging buildings need billions of dollars in repairs. But public campaigns by the union, a push from city lawmakers, and an exposé by The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News has recast the spotlight on school building conditions.

Though the ostensible purpose of the app is to make it easier for teachers to lodge complaints and to catch pressing problems before they become catastrophes, there’s also a clear political angle.

Councilwoman-at-Large Helen Gym, who has pushed for more school infrastructure money, believes the app will create a pool of galling photos and shocking complaints. That pool, she thinks, will trigger more public outrage about school building conditions.

“The fact that we have to crowdsource injustice is where we’re at,” said Gym. “And if that’s where we’re at, that’s where we’re gonna take it.”

The app, she said, will put Philly school leaders, state legislators, and city lawmakers “on trial starting today.”

Just because a teacher reaches out through the app doesn’t mean the problem they’ve identified will jump to the front of the district’s long maintenance queue, said Jerry Roseman, the PFT’s environmental director. The hope, however, is that the app will encourage staff to reach out when they see problems, so the district can prioritize the ones that need urgent intervention.

He believes, ultimately, that it will allow the district to catch issues earlier and save money in the long run.

“The idea is to use this to get things early, fix them fast, fix them cheaply and efficiently, and make people understand what’s possible,” said Roseman.

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