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Recording school history

17 Jun

Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss is nationally recognized for her work illuminating moments from everyday life.

Now she and a group of other photographers have stepped forward to help document the massive, unprecedented wave of school closings here in our city.

The Notebook reports:

She is calling her project the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective.

After the School Reform Commission took action, “it suddenly seemed as if everything was going to close without being properly documented, that a school would be closed and no one was going to have a photographic record of it,” said Strauss….

Strauss has put out the call for other photographers to each choose one of the 24 schools slated to be shuttered and document its final days….

Strauss realizes that people in the schools are stressed and that District staff is concerned about their sensibilities. So is she, Strauss said. She understands that school is a “safe place for students and staff and this is a traumatic moment.”

She wants her photographers to “have a sense of what it means to go into a school at a time like this.”

Bok High School in 1937

Bok Technical High School in 1937. Photo: PhillyHistory.org

Strauss herself will document Bok Technical High School, in her South Philadelphia neighborhood. She calls it a “great building,” one that has seen generations of students learn trades.

“Some of these buildings will become condos, some will be torn down,” she said. “This is about the importance of archiving the spaces before they go.”

Photographers interested in collaborating on the project can request to join the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective Facebook group.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to do this, but I’m very glad someone is. When I look at photos on PhillyHistory.org and similar archives, I am often struck by the unrecognizability of many familiar buildings and neighborhoods.

Iconic images stay more or less the same over the years — City Hall will always be City Hall. But people don’t live in City Hall. We live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods can change radically even in a short space of time.

Schools live in neighborhoods too. Chronicling the death of 24 schools is a modest but powerful way of affirming their role in the life of our city.

Photo credit: PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

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Preaching it

13 Jun

A while back, I had the privilege of hearing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak. At one point during her talk, she recalled her starting salary just out of law school — $17,000.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

She said, “That was more than my mother ever made.”

It seemed like a lot of money, she said. Then: “To some people, seventeen thousand dollars still IS a lot of money.”

It was a powerful moment. One of the nine most powerful judges in the world was acknowledging that poor people exist in the United States today — and that she actually understood what poverty could mean.

I thought of that today when I saw this video clip of State Senator Vincent Hughes’ recent speech in the state legislature on funding for education and healthcare.

Senator Vincent Hughes headshot

Pennsylvania Senator Vincent Hughes

Watch his passionate, informed speech now. Or take a look at the (long) excerpt below.

We have a solution in front of us that would help about a half a million people in Pennsylvania.

People who are working every day.  Many of them working two, three, and sometimes four jobs on a daily basis. They’re trying to make ends meet.

They’re not making a lot of money. They have drive, they have perseverance, they have faith — they have to have faith, because if they didn’t have faith, my best guess is they would not be able to make it through. They really wouldn’t.

They work every day. They’re cleaning bodies — of the infirm, the elderly, those who are sick, those who are disabled. They’re helping folks get to their job.

They’re providing security for us. Which is even more important on a daily basis as the level of violence seems to rise….

They work in our neighborhoods, they work in our communities. They do the work that just about all of us would not know how to do if we were asked to do it ourselves.

But all of us depend on these individuals. They work in this building. They service this building. They work every day. They’re real people with real lives.

The thing that they’re missing — because they’ve got everything else, they’ve got the drive, they’ve got the determination, they show up early. Very early.

They work the late shift, the overnight shift. They work the early shift. They take the early bus. Some of you may understand what that means. They put it in.

The thing that they’re missing, the thing that’s absent in their lives…is health insurance. The ability to go to a doctor and to get a problem taken care of.

Healthcare! We all know about it. Every one of us in this building — or at least those of us who sit in these grand chairs in this chamber, the 49, the 50 senators, the 203 House members, the folks in this administration, we. all. have. health insurance. We understand the value of that!

There are folks who I know who have a problem — but they’ve got insurance. That’s the first question. They’re taken care of.

But these individuals — there’s over a million of them in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They don’t have health insurance. But they work every day. They have a window of opportunity of a solution to their problem.

It’s right in front of us. It’s been provided to us. Plus the money to pay for it!

Four billion dollars a year, coming to Pennsylvania to provide health insurance to provide health insurance for about five hundred thousand working people in Pennsylvania.

And by the way, most of these working individuals are women. They’re heading families. They’re working every day. And they just need a little bit of help.

And the program is right there. It’s right within our grasp to take. It’s right there!

Three independent studies have said, “It is OK to do, Pennsylvania.” Over half the states in the nation have said, We’re going to take this program, we’re going to put it in place in our state, we’re going to make it work for our citizens.

And quite frankly it doesn’t just help those who don’t have insurance, it helps everyone, including those of us who have insurance, because it has the opportunity to lower our own personal rates, because everyone else is covered.

Right there in front of us. It’s like this glass of water. You’re thirsty — it’s right there in front of us.

It’s paid for. The water’s in the glass. The glass is sitting right there. It’s right there in front of us, but someone is pulling it away from us, not allowing us to have it.

The health insurance is there. The coverage is in place. Help is available for those who need the insurance.

But we keep getting stall tactics, day in and day out, from the front office, about why this cannot be done.

We got some smart people in Pennsylvania. Smart enough to know that if 25 other states could do it, surely we could do the same thing.

In the trenches

10 Jun

Following up on my earlier post about the School District’s layoffs, I thought I’d excerpt this stunner of a letter from one of those 3,800 laid-off employees.

Students standing in formation to spell out "PEACE"

Photo credit: Alice Heller

Good Morning, Sir,

I received my notice Saturday. I got it early in the morning, so it could stick in the back of my brain all weekend like a splinter in a finger….

The letter mentions to let someone at the School District of Philadelphia know if you are a veteran. I served honorably for 21 years in the Pennsylvania National Guard and have deployed twice in service to my country. I am honorably discharged and hold the status of retiree from the army….

I successfully completed the Troops to Teachers Program and I have been teaching in the District since January of 2009….

Since coming to the District, I found equipment when there was none, I created curriculum when there was nothing, I did without when we needed supplies….

For the last four years, I have struggled, alongside the most courageous and honorable people I have ever worked with, to teach the students, feed the students, clothe the students, protect the students, and lead the students….

I realize that there are always forces beyond my control, but know that if you break up our team at Crossroads, you will damage one of the few systems in the School District of Philadelphia that is actually working. We are strong because of the integration of our curriculum, the dedication of our small but determined band of educators, and because we have the proper leadership to carry us through.

I understand that every school and employee will claim the same, but we are truly different. If you break us up now, you will lose one small program that is making a profound impact on the fabric of our city.

Sincerely and respectfully,

Harvey Scribner
Teacher
​Crossroads Accelerated Academy at Elverson

Read the whole thing, as they say. (Note: I am the one who added the link in Mr. Scribner’s letter above — it goes to a prior article published in The Notebook about Crossroads Accelerated Academy, where he teaches.)

Then check out Faces of the Layoffs, a new blog featuring stories of people who have been laid off.

I am all too intimately aware of the School District’s many failings. I could write a book about all of the screwups and idiocy I have witnessed.

But the solution to those problems is not to abandon our commitment to the very concept of public education.

Update: Per the comment below, the photo should be credited to Principal Alice Heller. Many thanks!

Open up a universe

10 Jun

Ta-Nehisi Coates on what he says to young people who live in tough (or not-so-tough) neighborhoods:

What I have come to believe is that children are more than what their circumstance put upon them. So my goal is to get kids to own their education.

I don’t think I can hector them into doing this. I don’t think I can shame them into doing it. I do think that might be able to affect some sort of internal motivation.

So I try to get them to see that every subject they study has the potential to open up a universe. I really mean this….

I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.

Solomon Jones headshot

Solomon Jones

Here in Philadelphia, writer Solomon Jones put Coates’ ideas into practice when he brought a group of high school students on a Cook’s Tour of journalism.

From his article:

I wanted the students at Bok [High School] to see what that life could look like, so I took them on a tour of the places where I work and write.

In doing so, I hope I allowed them to tour more than a few media outlets. I hope I allowed them to tour their own futures.

At WHYY, they met Executive Producer for Audio Elisabeth Perez-Luna, and NewsWorks Community Media Editor Jeanette Woods.

They also heard from Morning Edition host JoAnn Allen

At the Philadelphia Daily News, they met with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who used their ideas as the basis for a cartoon.

They also sat in on a news meeting with Editor Michael Days, Editorial Page Editor Sandra Shea and every other editor on the staff.

Finally, I took the students to Axis Philly, where they helped to edit a video based on their media tour.

.

Jones continues:

But the day was about more than pep talks and videos.

It was about possibilities.

It was about seeing beyond the walls of Bok High School, beyond the challenges of South Philadelphia High School, and beyond the specter of uncertainty.

For one day in Center City Philadelphia, I wanted them to dream. I wanted them to see themselves as more than students. I wanted them to see themselves as the future. If we accomplished that much together, I’ve done my job. The rest is up to them.

Here’s TNC again. Seriously, this guy is awesome (even if he is from Baltimore rather than Phila):

I think we all get frustrated with the state of our community. I think it is easy to turn that frustration into a kind of catharsis by denigrating the dreams of children.

I believe in taking the dreams of children seriously, and then challenging them to take their own dreams seriously.

Amen.

Photo credit: Solomon Jones.

Qualified kudos

7 May

When I first met a staffer from the GreenLight Fund, I was pretty skeptical of their stated approach. Assuming that there is no existing organization effectively solving your problem and parachuting in from out-of-town with a “replicable solution” sounds like a recipe for frustration to say the least.GreenLight Fund logo

This 2012 Generocity.org article articulates some of the skepticism.

In contrast, this Philadelphia Business Journal article summarizes GreenLight’s philosophy from their perspective:

 It focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families by taking the principles that VCs [venture capitalists] use to select companies to invest in and applying them to selecting nonprofits to fund.

Specifically, GreenLight works with people in a city to identify the city’s needs; does a national search to find the nonprofits that are best serving those needs in other places; makes grants to enable those nonprofits to bring their programs to the city; and provides them with support to help their programs succeed.

I was also bit put off by the tap-dancing response I got from their staffer to some very basic, nonthreatening questions, and even less delighted by their opaque website. Hard to trust someone’s agenda when you don’t know where they’re coming from.

(I’m glad to see they’ve now added a bit of info on their funders and their “Selection Advisory Council” — though there is a second, mostly similar list elsewhere on the site.)

I am even more pleased to say that their first two grants appear to be promising: $1.33 million to Year Up and $1 million to Single Stop  USA.

From the Business Journal article:

  • “Year Up is a Boston-based nonprofit helps disconnected, 18-to-24-year-old urban residents get the skills and experience necessary for professional careers.”
  • “Single Stop is a New York-based nonprofit that helps low-income community-college students stay in school by connecting them and their families with financial resources and other support.”

What I know of Year Up is very positive. (I don’t know anything about Single Stop, though it seems similar to the Benefit Bank here in Philadelphia. It is interesting that apparently it is the same program that GreenLight funded in Boston. What are the odds?)

Here’s hoping this project works out well for Philadelphia! I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

Getting outside your neighborhood

1 May

Boys’ Latin Charter School in West Philadelphia is encouraging teenage boys to get outside their comfort zones and explore the city through ethnography.

Boys' Latin school logo

As the school’s co-founder and CEO explains:

Philadelphia is broken up into a bunch of small, ten-block radius towns, where nobody ventures beyond that area,” he said. “All these insular communities create opportunities for conflict whenever someone comes into that community. So we want to dispel the myth that it has to be that way, and we sent kids all over the place.”

In my experience, this is absolutely right — including among wealthy Philadelphians who may zip from Rittenhouse to the sports stadiums or to faraway cities, but rarely venture into the city’s other neighborhoods.

Kudos to the school and teacher for facilitating this intriguing learning experience.

Like any good social scientist, Marcus Smalls came away from his research with a better understanding of his own environment.

[Teacher Carly] Ackerman also urged her students to observe what goes on in their own homes. Smalls set up shop at the dining room table. […]

During his observations, said Smalls, he noticed for the first time just how busy his mom really is.

“She just loves to do work,” he said. “It made me look up to her. She inspired me, because she doesn’t let anything distract her.”

Overall, this is a lovely article. Check out the photos and audio at the NewsWorks site.

Quibbles: I wish the article didn’t typecast boys with its assumptions about quiet observation and Victoria’s Secret. And I have deep reservations about charter models that rely on young Teach for America grads, often with high turnover.

What do parents want?

15 Apr

Daycare photo #1

Seeing this sign in North Philadelphia reminded me that poor parents want the same thing as richer parents: To know that their children are safe while they are away from them.

After all, isn’t this web cam more or less the same thing as a nanny cam? The difference in this case is that the employees know that the parents may be watching.

Daycare photo #2Of course, monitoring is a fairly crude way to try to ensure high-quality care (and potentially prone to backfiring). The more sophisticated ways tend to require investments of time, money, professional development, and so on.

Which brings me to an interesting development on the horizon. The World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative recently announced a major new effort in Philadelphia to develop an assessment of kindergarten readiness. The effort is funded via a $200,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to the United Way.

From the announcement (emphasis is mine):

[H]igh-quality preschool education is the exception, not the rule, in Greater Philadelphia. In a region with 250,000 children under five, only 11 percent of registered childcare providers earned a Keystone STARS 3 or 4 rating [in Pennsylvania’s voluntary child-care rating system], generally considered to be the standard of “high quality.”

[…] Getting standardized kindergarten readiness assessments in place could have a particularly strong impact in the low-income communities where quality preschool education is needed most, empowering parents to “vote with their feet” and demand high-quality early learning options.

My bias is that poor families don’t really need help demanding high-quality early learning options. They already want them. Rather, they may need help discerning which of the options open to them is the best.*

But that’s a quibble. All in all, I was glad to hear about the RWJ grant and hope that the project comes to fruition as anticipated.

*Of course, it would also be nice if the childcare subsidies that poor families are eligible for were better tied to quality of care. But that’s a topic for another post.