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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!

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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.

Row by row

8 Jun
Did you know that Philadelphia’s Chinatown has the greatest amount of paved-over surface area in the city? I didn’t.

Now a group of young activists from Asian Americans United is working to transform a small triangle of land in Chinatown into a green space. (See photo for its current appearance.)
AAU garden lot

From AAU’s recent announcement:

In 2008, when youth in AAU’s Community Action Class surveyed the area around their school in Chinatown North, they found neglected vacant lots, illegal dumping, and little green space.

After succeeding in getting a lot next to the school cleaned up, permission to use the lot, and the fence fixed by the absentee land owner, AAU youth (with the indispensable help of adults) are now working to transform this vacant lot into a garden.

Every year, children and youth in our AAU Summer Program help build the garden – little by little, inch by inch. Last summer they built raised beds, planted butterfly habitat, made bird feeders, and grew and cooked with herbs.

I’ve recently been listening to some lectures on environmental psychology, and the research on greening is pretty interesting. One study found that hospital patients who had a view of something green (such as a tree) healed more quickly than those whose windows just looked out onto other buildings.

The AAU announcement continues:

In the words of our garden theme song: “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.”

Through AAU’s Summer Program and our Inch by Inch Garden, we teach children that making positive change takes persistence and hard work. But, together, we can make a difference in the world.

That’s a pretty good message, I think. (Emphasis mine.)

You can make a donation to support AAU’s garden work.

Here are some options:

___ $12 buys a dozen spring bulbs

___ $60 buys one fig tree

___ $100 buys four blueberry bushes

___ $200 buys lumber and supplies for four more raised beds

Listen to AAU member Dao Tran talk about her experience of being taken seriously as a 12-year-old activist back in 1987.

People you should know (First in a series)

4 Jun
W. Rockland Street photo

W. Rockland Street

I think this will end up being a long series. Although the posts themselves will not end up being long, necessarily.

Here are two people to know: Emaleigh and Ainé Doley. I mentioned Emaleigh before in the context of her anti-litter work for Axis Philly.

These sisters are the driving force behind the W. Rockland Street blog, which chronicles neighborly connections and neighborhood beautification on one block in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

(For you locals, W. Rockland is between Greene Street and the 4800-4900 block of Germantown Ave. And if you’re not local, here’s a little info on Germantown.)

I have a soft spot for people who are working for a better Philadelphia, as may be obvious. Ainé and Emaleigh definitely fall into that category.

Some people call what they are doing “tactical urbanism.” For my money, it’s less important what you call it than that you do it. They certainly are.

Photo credit: W. Rockland Street blog.

Anna Deavere Smith

26 May

Anna Deavere Smith headshot

A recent announcement:

Philadelphia Theatre Company will host a residency for Anna Deavere Smith leading to the creation of [a] new work, The Pipeline Project, thanks to a generous gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation….

The Pipeline Project will address the increasing numbers of American youngsters – especially African-American males – being “shuttled” from school into the criminal justice system.

During her 2013-2015 residency at PTC, Smith will use elements of the theatre process that she has refined over the past three decades to create a compelling theatre piece that is also an opportunity to spark city-wide dialogue and public engagement about our education system and our civic responsibilities to children.

Emphasis mine. My initial response: Extremely ambitious, but intriguing.

Smith explains, “In The Pipeline Project I plan to use not only what I know about creating a drama, but also what I know about creating conversation, to make the process as well as the product useful to the cause of increasing awareness about what is happening to our young people. I also intend to create new audiences and spur advocacy while doing so.”

I get nervous when people talk about things like “the cause of increasing awareness,” in part because I’m not at all sure that the problem of young people and incarceration is one of awareness.

“Create new audiences” also sounds pretty ambitious. If I’m reading it right, the focus is on getting people who haven’t attended PTC’s productions in the past to attend them.

Not totally clear what the mechanism for that would be, except that human beings in general like to see their stories represented. Maybe ADS’s new story (play) will bring in some people who traditionally have felt under-represented in American theater.

She continued: “I am delighted to be returning to work with [Philadelphia Theatre Company] both because of their track record, which is unquestionable, and because this is a theatre which at its very root has compassion. The project that I am about to create requires an environment that can support it artistically, but also, has, in its own DNA, true civic empathy.”

Emphasis mine, again.

I like her phrase “civic empathy.” I have been a fan of Smith’s since her book Talk to Me, and I really loved seeing a workshop production of her play “Let Me Down Easy.”

Unfortunately, when I saw the full production of the latter a year later, it had become disturbingly celebrity-focused and seemed to be staggering under the weight of Trying to Say Something About the American Healthcare System.

I sincerely hope this new production is let alone by its funders/minders — so that ADS can do what she does best, eliciting and dramatizing extraordinary stories.

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.