Commentary: Act now to save our public schools

Opinion May 23, 2013 0 Comments

by Elliott Self

Save our public schools! That’s the message we all need to hear, understand and act upon as we move into a year of major crisis for all of Philadelphia’s school district-run public schools.

Next year’s situation for our local public schools – Henry, Houston, Jenks, Martin Luther King High School, and many others – is dire. There is a huge district budget deficit for next year, primarily due to the massive State cuts to the Philadelphia school district two years ago that has continued ever since.

The district has done what it can to cut costs, including massive reductions in district administrators and the closing of schools, but there is still a gap of $300 million. As a result, all Philadelphia District school budgets have been drastically cut.

If the present budget cuts remain, schools will lose teachers, counselors, aides, art and music programs – even secretaries! Class sizes will be increased. It will be virtually impossible to maintain even the minimal level of educational quality that exists today.

To give one specific example: Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice is a Philadelphia public school currently situated on the New Covenant Church campus in West Mt. Airy, with about 300 students, grades 9-12. Students come from all over the city to the school.

By most measures, the school is a success. From 65 to75 percent of its students regularly score at the proficient level or above on statewide reading tests. Most students graduate. About 90 percent of its students go on to higher education institutions.

But its success can be measured in many other ways. The school integrates peace and social justice themes into a rigorous academic program in all subjects. All students at the school are trained in peer mediation techniques. The school uses peer mediation as a tool for helping students to solve conflicts. Through several special courses, students learn how to communicate effectively and resolve conflicts, deal with ethical and moral issues, be proactive and examine global conflicts and issues.

All students provide a minimum of 60 hours of community service over four years. Every student completes a senior project, focused on a peace and social justice issue, that includes research, fieldwork, a 10-page paper and a presentation to outside community members and teachers. Many students participate in special events and activities, such as Outward Bound programs, special school events, and visits to Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in New York City.

Next year’s current budget proposals are devastating to the school’s program and student activities. The school currently has 14 teachers who provide the basic academic program to all students, including art. That number has been cut to 10. The school will lose its secretary and its counselor. Question: Who will answer the phones, welcome parents and provide help to students as they navigate college admissions?

Money for after-school activities, including sports, has been cut from the budget. There is no money in the current budget for materials and supplies, such as paper and textbooks. And there is certainly no money for any type of special activities and events, such as field trips, that make school special for a good number of Parkway’s students.

While outside community members and parents currently raise funds to support some school activities, there is no way that these devastating cuts can be funded through outside sources. Parkway literally cannot provide a basic quality education with the drastic budget cuts that decimate the current school program.

The same is true for all public schools in the Mt. Airy-Chestnut Hill communities and beyond. These budget cuts will also have significant effects on other schools where students in our area go, such as Masterman and Central High schools.

Our only hope is that the city and the state both provide additional funding for next year. But getting the support at both levels is not by any means a given – it will require continual pressure on our City Council and state representatives.

You can help. Contact your local and and at-large members of City Council and ask them to support the district’s request for an additional $60 million for next year. Contact your state representatives and ask them to support an additional $120 million for Philadelphia schools for next year.

Time is of the essence. Don’t delay. We must keep up the pressure on our city and state representatives to show that we care about quality schools for all, and avoid the major crisis that the current funding situation will create in our neighborhood public schools and beyond.

Elliott Self is a West Mt. Airy resident and chair of the Advisory Council at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice.

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