Vesko: What is your connection to the Philadelphia public school system?
Jeremy: I finished my fifth year of teaching secondary mathematics in Philadelphia at Germantown High School. I also served as a technology leader and a union building representative for Germantown High for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. I accepted a site selected [merit based] position at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts starting in the fall.
Vesko: What is the current situation of the schools that are scheduled for closing due to budget cuts?
Jeremy: All of those schools are officially closed and by the end of next week [July 15th] (unless things have changed), all educational materials should have been removed. The only ones slated to close were taken off the list after the vote back in March.
The plans for those schools are uncertain at this point. There are rumors that some are sold to various entities and some charter schools are expressing interest in their facilities but nothing that is certain.
Vesko: Why were there such drastic cuts in the first place that caused the city to have to close about two-dozen public schools?
Jeremy: There are a few reasons. One reason the district is in the financial mess that it is in is because the federal government had given the district money in the past few years (I forget in a grant or how exactly it was distributed) but that funding source ended. Also our previous superintendents (mainly Arlene Ackerman) had taken out many loans to fund different initiatives, which were never [re]paid. So when you take away money and have to pay a bunch back, it creates major problems.
One way to save money is to cut operating costs of schools that have few seats. When you look at the schools that are closed, most are in areas of the city that are underprivileged but also ones where charter schools have sprung up and have taken kids out of traditional schools and into those charters. At its closing, Germantown only had 650 kids in a school that could hold 2,000+. There has also been an increase of special admission schools that have taken kids out of the traditional neighborhood schools.
Germantown is just one example of the situation many of the schools were in that faced closing.
Vesko: How do you feel Philly ranks in K-12 education compared to the region, nation, and word?
Jeremy: It depends on the school and the staff that runs it. When you look at schools like Central High and Masterman High, they are considered some of the top public schools in the country. Looking at the school system as a whole, it does not compare favorably to regional school districts especially in Bucks and Montgomery counties. There are completely different challenges in urban education compared to other places in the area. These are also challenges that districts in New York, Chicago, DC, Los Angeles, etc. face and we are all in the same situation. Some schools are great and some are failing and some of them are the worst in the country according to test scores.
This is all based on how outsiders judge the performance of the schools which is based on data driven parameters like test scores, amounts of dangerous incidents, graduation rate, and I could go on. I have thought a lot about this since the school year ended but education is not based on these things but meeting students where they are, challenging them as much as we can, and helping them realize and achieve their goals. With that said, there are many teachers, counselors and other personnel who do a great job in these “failing” schools to reach these kids. I could go on and on about this part but I think education is happening in many schools but it is not always easy to quantify it as the state wants us to.
Vesko: U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon launched the UN Global Education First Initiative to help develop learning standards and practices to help get kids in schools, stay healthy, and lead productive lives. Some of the most important issues are the need for eliminating the cost barrier to attend and complete schooling (transport and materials), identify and help kids who need nutritional, social, and health support to allow them to focus on studies, and to close the gender gap in education. While these issues were raised primarily for children in conflict areas or the developing world, many of our cities and very rural areas also suffer from these problems. In Philly, are these issues being addressed at all? How are they becoming even larger issues now that the education budget is being cut?
Jeremy: I think that [education] and global climate concerns are the biggest challenges our generation will face in an attempt to fix. Those things you stated are problems that I have faced every day for the last five years. In schools, we face students who do not have materials to be successful, they are homeless, their main meal might be a lunch and breakfast provided by the school, there can be gang violence to distract them, and there are societal norms that students face. The main plan to combat these things are trying to create educational programs such as Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs in culinary arts, business, automotive, etc to get kids more interested in schools. In high-needs schools, there was an increase in the last few years in counselors to assist in some of the other social dynamics. In many of those schools, there was a grant from the Department of Labor to decrease class sizes, create support centers to provide students with ideas on what they can do and focus on post-secondary education.
With the budget cuts, there are few to no counselors in schools to help with these things. The grant I mentioned ran its course and has not been renewed so class sizes will be going up in those schools. There is a desire to expand the CTE programs in schools and that should not be affected, other than seeing increase in class sizes and an absence of other electives that students may have enjoyed, because of funding problems.
It is extremely important that all children across the world try to see their goals and dreams realized but [these problems] are hardly relegated to developing countries and extend to our own cities and rural communities right here in the United States.
Vesko: Another aspect of the UN Global Education First Initiative is that we need to foster a “global citizenship” and “cultivate an active care for the world and those whom we share it with.” Are Philadelphia public schools able to adopt this kind of education? Is there any evidence that they have been promoting a “global citizenship?”
Jeremy: I think Philadelphia public schools are able to adopt it but it all comes to the question as to who would incorporate that education and where would the focus come from. You can see some ideas of global citizenship and understanding for global concerns in the schools but there is also disconnect with some students who may not have been outside their neighborhood or city before much less know or care about the world around them. The priorities of the school district have been on state test scores and as long as that is the tool of judgment by the state, other initiatives such as UNEF’s will not be focused as highly as it should be.
Vesko: It seems that we are on a path that there will still be schools in Philly (and the rest of the U.S.) that fail to live up to UNESCO standards for 2015 agreed upon in 2000 at the World Education Forum in Dakar. How do you feel about this and were these goals unrealistic for Philadelphia in 2015 when they were made 13 years ago?
Jeremy: I think some of those are goals that we are approaching and others are not. I believe that the literacy rate is increasing and opportunities for a more gender-neutral educational experience are being realized. Early childhood education has been increased in Philadelphia but cuts have taken a lot of that away for next year.
Having students meet measurable goals is where we really will fall short, and to receive a quality education. To have students meet these goals they have to have a quality education from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, which I do not believe they always get. There is also an absence of parental involvement in many of our students’ formative and developing years. We are really looking at a paradigm shift for many parents in the city that they need to stay involved and expose their children to things starting at a young age and through high school. I think that is a very hard task to achieve in 15 years and was somewhat unrealistic.
Vesko: Well Jeremy, thank you so much for you time and insight! Things do seem gloomy for the future of Philly’s schools and students, but I think we’ll be okay as long as there are committed educators like you in the system.
Jeremy: Thanks Vesko… I’m doing some soul searching to see how I want to address these things cause I’m tired of seeing them continuing.