The First Day of School in Philadelphia

Beeber Middle School. From slamedia.org.

On the southwest corner of 22nd and Arch in Center City is the Science Leadership Academy. It is a proud Philadelphia School District high school, led by education celebrity Christopher Lehman, whose students have hosted both Bill Gates and the President. The school was founded in 2006, and its second-story windows display three gold-trimmed placards with the words “Adequate Yearly Progress Two Consecutive Years” written on each.

The SLA has found success in Philadelphia, but many schools have not. Twenty-three closed last year, and even as enrollment in the remaining schools has increased, their staff has been laid off. There is not enough money for education, the state government says, although Philadelphia’s GDP was over $350 billion dollars in 2011—more than a hundred times greater than the entire municipal public school budget. Meanwhile almost a third of Philadelphians live below the federal poverty line. Half the city makes less than $34,000 a year.

Over the summer, the SLA expanded to the top floor of Dimner Beeber Middle School, in the African-American neighborhood of Parkside in West Philadelphia. Tomorrow morning, Mayor Michael Nutter and Superintendent William Hite will open the new Beeber-SLA. A week ago, a Beeber teacher told me that the third floor was renovated with money from the Philadelphia School Partnership, an education philanthropy founded by a private equity fund manager who got his start lending to the mining industry. When employers cut their retirement funds and roll back their health care plans, they do it to pay off loans to people like him.

The teachers I’ve spoken to have been looking forward to the day with disquiet and uncertainty. During the summer, one in five district employees was fired, which led to, among other things, a hunger strike and mass busing to Harrisburg to protest Governor Tom Corbett’s insistence that additional state funding come at the expense of further concessions from unionized district employees. Philadelphia teachers union president Jerry Jordan has pointed out that city teachers already get paid 19 percent less than those in surrounding districts. Two weeks before school started, the school district went into debt to rehire some 700 teachers, a little less than half the number fired in June, and school safety staff, who are crucial to the functioning of schools in high-crime communities. So the public schools funding crisis can only get worse. At the same time Philadelphia is growing for the first time in sixty years.

Tonight, teachers, parents, and students have met staff organizers from Action United, the local ACORN successor, and a student union to demonstrate outside the governor’s office. The administration rents space in the Hyatt at the Bellevue, a magnificent 1904 hotel built by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria and designed by G. W. & W. D. Hewitt. A crowd of between two and three hundred people are picketing the hotel’s entrance, chanting “One Term Tom,” to the frowns of tourists surveying the city’s walkable district. A battery of TV news vans and cameras envelop the hotel entrance. Soon exasperated guests are telling one another about the side door in the parking garage.

As the sun begins to set, marchers light candles as they circle the length of sidewalk. In the street median fourteen people stand, each holding a cardboard sign with Christmas lights spelling one letter in “FUND OUR SCHOOLS.” The car horns begin, ebbing with the rhythm of the stop lights, and echo between the buildings. There is a curious lack of police presence—just two SUVs parked on top of the median—and not a barricade in sight. Before the night is over the crowd will march in the street with a police escort; coming from New York this seems almost unthinkable for an explicitly antagonistic assembly. Several protesters hold coffin-shaped signs reading “Ain’t got no LOVE for public schools,” with the “LOVE” referencing the Robert Indiana sculpture in John F. Kennedy Park, itself an homage to the city.

The chants stop, and a young woman halfway ascends the hotel stairs with one of the megaphones. She is a school district alumna and current Penn student, and she tells the crowd that the administration of the city’s public schools is eroding equality of opportunity for its citizens. “We can see that our youth are being set up to fail,” she says, before leading the crowd in a call and response tribute to the “Reverend NAS” (I know I can/ Be what I want to be/ If I work hard at it/ I’ll be where I want to be). “So we say rest in peace to the talent of our Philly youth,” she concludes, “not because it doesn’t exist, but because the precious talent of our youth cannot thrive in an environment that does nothing to help them survive.”

After that, a student from Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts sings. Kensington CAPA was planned and won by the the student union Youth United for Change, executive director Andi Perez tells me. She wears thick earrings, the size of quarters, and carries herself with extraordinary confidence. Tomorrow Perez will show me around the school (“our baby”) across the street from the YUC office, beneath the Frankford El, explaining everything in her Philly brogue—how the students researched the superintendent’s history of funding “shiny new projects,” how they took him on a tour of the old Kensington High to show him the need for a new building, how the old Kensington High’s 1,200 underclassmen became 350 upperclassmen, and how the captain of the 26th Precinct told her school incidents involving city police dropped 800 percent after she split up the old school into the four there are now. It took her a decade, and a divorce, she says, to give her childhood neighborhood a safe high school.

Tomorrow, Perez will introduce me to Erin Smith, a teacher for ten-and-a-half years, who volunteered to meet with Kennsington CAPA students every week this summer to prepare them for the fall semester. Smith will tell me that her school lost four teachers, two counselors, and half of their noontime aides this year. She will tell me that the performing arts school no longer has a dance program and their music teacher must split her time with another school forty minutes away. She will tell me that the brand new high school no longer has a librarian or an assistant principal, that the nurse is only in three days a week, that their chemistry teacher is teaching music and the special-ed teacher is teaching art, and that common class sizes are thirty-three to forty students per teacher. She will tell me that although they are now only overenrolled by 125 students from closed schools, they are expecting another twenty-five to thirty by the end of October, when the charters finalize their enrollment and turn away unwanted students. And she explains with pride how the ten-person student government she met with all summer came in to prepare the school last week, decorating all the bulletin boards and stocking all the classrooms, and how they planned and ran the orientation for 200 incoming students.

Later tomorrow at the YUC building, a 17-year-old from a closed school will tell me the last president in his old history textbook was Bill Clinton. Then he will recall the day his principal announced that their school was on the closing list, and he will note with with strong nods the human chain he helped to organize around the building. A 15-year-old sitting with us will say he couldn’t get into his new school. He needed a birth certificate or other identification, which neither he nor his parents knew, so his father had to come take him home for the day. But that’s tomorrow. Right now Kiara of Kensington CAPA is singing to a crowd of parents and teachers in the tourist district of Center City. She is supposed to be proof that the talent of Philadelphia’s youth is not limited to the private schools, and her voice is beautiful.

Next there is rapping, and while some of the older activists in the crowd appear uncomfortable, they do all they can to remain supportive. Robert Ayola, 23, a New York Public School dropout and Philadelphia GED recipient takes the megaphone. He is a YUC alumnus, and his lyrics deserve, I think, to appear here:

My brothers don’t cry you gotta roll with the punches

I wonder if we’re the topic at the senators’ lunches.

Unemployment’s up and the quotas are made,

And we don’t even have enough to keep our mortgages paid.

You gotta keep your head up, that’s the quote of the day,

While these crooked politicians leading voters astray.

I’m chillin’ at the bottom—lookin’ up the pyramid

Was lookin’ for some change, Obama said here it is.

They say my people is animals, but I ain’t hearin’ it

I got too much drive, but the rich man is steerin’ it

I’d rather love my country than to have to be fearin’ it.

Crooked lawyers, police, and school board officials

Would rather judge us, beat us, and claim we got issues,

While the rich man counting stacks, talkin’ fiscals

We see people like Jay Z, we get wishful.

I’m hopin’

Tryna to to keep my eyes wide open,

They say pain and love is in the same motion.

I’m just a small fish that’s swimmin’ in the ocean,

And gotta bust my balls to see a promotion.

Why should we work for a dime

When it’s really worth a dollar and we only keep nine?

You got youngins in the street, riding rolling wit K’s

And ol’heads in the cell sayin’ “those was the days.”

They say crime don’t pay, but the media love it,

They give a youngin 30 years and they think nothin’ of it.

These are the times in which we live,

You got babies having babies and kids killing kids.

Should we make a change, or just make our bed,

Or maybe change our minds, and not turn our heads?

Cause only in the dark can you see the stars,

I’m tryna see a change so we can see tomorrow.

After the rally I walk with Ron Whitehorne and look for something to eat. The Capital Grille across from the Hyatt is too expensive, so we walk and walk but the only other place is a Wendy’s. Ron is tall with a slight hunch, a man with an emphatic grin and luminescent hair. He is 71 years old and has lived in Philadelphia since before the demise of the New Left, when he was sent here with the newly formed VISTA program of the Peace Corps to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. “I wasn’t a pacifist,” he tells me, “I had my own anti-imperialist critique.”

He is a Marxist, a former garment worker in the dying days of American industry, a retired public school teacher, and one of the lead organizers of PCAPS, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, which has managed to combine multiple district employee and student unions, independent teachers and parents’ groups, PTAs, labor councils, federations, and confederations into a single, coherent anti-austerity organizing coalition. This is his latest effort in a long organizing career, from working to unite black and white youth during the civil rights movement, to struggling to align the antirevisionist New Communist movement in Philadelphia with the growing rank-and-file union movement of the 1970s, to leading the Occupy Labor working group in 2011, which built bridges between the city’s unions and the general assembly. “I never actually occupied,” he admits. “My camping days are over.”

Whitehorne explains the history of city finances, the historic wage tax and its gradual demise. The Adjusted Value Initiative implemented last year by Mayor Nutter is tricky, he says—on the one hand it appraised many homes whose values had changed dramatically, lowering taxes for stagnant communities and raising them tremendously in the gentrifying neighborhoods; on the other it gave about $16 million in rebates to corporate landlords in Center City which, while not enough to fix the school budget, was irritating nonetheless. Grasping for revenues after the 3,700 layoffs, PCAPS led an initiative with District 7 Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez to increase a Use and Occupancy Tax on businesses, which was originally projected to raise $80 million. Today the School District needs only $133 million. The Quiñones-Sánchez bill exempted commercial properties valued below $177,000, a small business clause that still did not win her enough votes at the council, even after the bill’s projections were halved. Instead the mayor led a successful vote for a sin tax on cigarettes, which the city must await Harrisburg’s permission to begin collecting.

It’s 8:12 AM, thirteen minutes before school starts, and the crowd outside Dimner Beeber Middle School has tightened up in expectation of Mayor Michael Nutter and Superintendent William Hite’s arrival. A garbage truck emerges from an alley, the crew chanting at the crowd of journalists, “What do we want? Contract! What do we want? Contract!” The reporters pause to look at one another before chuckling. The sixteen thousand municipal workers of AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47 have been working without a contract for over four years.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. opens for Nutter, promising new jobs and emphasizing new safety. The mayor arrives during his speech. “Good to be here,” he says, “at . . . I guess this is Beeber-SLA?” The men behind him all nod. He makes a joke about children only knowing two days of school—the first and the last—and then acknowledges the activists in the crowd. Organizers from Action United have shown up with their own flyers and petitions. “Invest in our Children, or Fund Education—I acknowledge all of that,” Nutter says, “and many of us have tried to do those things, and we have done them, but we need to do more. There are things that we can do, that we should do, that we must do, and we’ve done some things on that, but we could do more.” He repeats this last clause two more times during his speech, speaking about the importance of a “full funding formula” for schools (as will Representative Chaka Fattah after him and State Senator Vincent Hughes after that). He talks about the importance of investing in children for the character of a community, with a cadence at times combative, at times compassionate. He doesn’t once mention the teachers’ union.

“We have a new program here,” he says about the building behind him, “Dr. Hite and the SRC investing in our neighborhood again. With SLA. A new, tested, known, exciting, functional, and fully developed program right here.”

But the school behind him was not supposed to stay open with SRC money. Superintendent Hite had wanted to close it. In December, the district released its restructuring plan, which would have combined Dimner Beeber Middle School with Gompers and Overbrook Elementaries. Gompers and Overbrook parents, who did not want their young children to attend a school that had been classified as “persistently dangerous,” opposed the plan, and in February it was scrapped. Beeber would simply be closed and its students sent to the nearby Overbrook High School. In March, after a rally where YUC staff and AFT national President Randi Weingarten were among the nineteen arrested for blocking doors to the SRC hearing hall, the commission voted to close 23 schools. Because Beeber had been added to the list separately, its hearing was scheduled for April 18 with another late addition, Stanton Elementary.

One week before the final hearing about the Beeber closure, 17-year-old Bernard Scott was shot and killed outside Overbrook. Two other students were shot as well. Five days later, Hite announced that Dimner Beeber would stay open.

Eventually Hite steps to the podium. He is professional, a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, and he exhorts his audience for “a collective voice” to ensure that Philadelphia’s children receive “the education that’s going to prepare them for a global economy.” He is suggesting that unless you want your child to end up working in retail or food service, you had better try your hardest to make your school like SLA. The global economy has a very narrow middle class, but if you want to make sure your kids end up there, he seemed to be saying, make sure they’re trained from an early age to become either an engineer or a manager.

I stop at the UNITE HERE office on North 7th Street. Local 634 represents noontime aides, and temporarily had its membership halved for three months over the summer. Justin Haley, a five-year district employee with his dreads in a ponytail, sits with me and tells me about his job. His hours are cut, but at least he has his job back. It’s a union job, but he doesn’t get health care.

Motivation High School, where Haley works, was relocated over the summer to the former Turner Middle School. It no longer has a counselor, librarian, nurse, or community liaison—the social services worker who would visit the homes of truant students. Motivation High School is a magnet school, described by its principal as a public school “with a private school philosophy.”

We sit and he tells me about work, about a ninth grader he was close with. Inexplicably the boy became oppositional at school, and Haley began talking with him to find out why his behavior had changed so drastically. In peer-mediation the boy broke down in tears. He had witnessed a murder, and didn’t know whether or not he was going to survive the semester. Haley tells me about another student who died. His death was announced over the PA system the next morning to preempt any rumors.

Haley tells what it’s like to work with kids who are afraid of death, and how you can tell which kids don’t get meals at home. And he tells me about why he does it, about how important it is to show these kids that their lives matter, and to motivate them against the odds.

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