This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Ten years ago, in May 1994, we wrote the following thoughts in our first editorial:
Where does Philadelphia Public School Notebook fit into the picture of a school system ready for bold change?
- We want to present an honest view of the Philadelphia schools. A school system as troubled as ours needs a spotlight on the extreme problems that confront us.
- We also want to shine a light on strategies and struggles for improving the schools. There are hundreds of dedicated parents, staff, community people, and students trying to make our schools work. None has the time to go to all the meetings to hear about exciting work that is going on, and a Notebook can help.
- We bring a point of view to debates about the schools: we believe that public education must have at its heart the idea of equality. For our schools to work for all children, we must overcome disparities based on race, sex, or class. Most of us start with energy and concern for our own children, classroom or school – but we want to channel that energy toward providing quality and equality in education for every child.
- We believe that citizens of Philadelphia wield substantial power if and when they come together in an organized way to change our schools. This newspaper is written by and for the parents, communities, staff, and students who are involved in our school system. These grassroots experts are the people who must unify around a shared vision for better schools. The Notebook hopes to play a part in shaping that vision and providing some tools to achieve it.
After ten years of publishing, two things are very clear to us: the continued relevance of this initial vision of our paper and the fact that many readers and others across the city are clamoring to participate in making the school system better.
By almost any indicator, our District is still a troubled school system. Fewer than one in four schools meet state standards for proficiency on standardized texts. Over 1,000 teachers lack full certification and are concentrated in high-poverty schools where quality teaching is most vital. Many high schools graduate less than half of their students. Many schools could be labeled "persistently dangerous" because of the number of violent incidents.
At the root of these familiar conditions are two underlying problems.
One is the continued lack of political will among those in power to give urban public schools the attention and resources they need. Our nation can find hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on the military or prisons, but the lack of commitment to public education and to equitable, adequate funding in poor communities leaves us with our hands tied.
The other problem is a continued reluctance to create channels for sharing power with grassroots experts – particularly parents, students, and school staff. Over the past decade, we’ve seen dozens of inspiring examples of students, parents, teachers, and community members working together to create solutions to school problems. School, District, and government leaders should be consistently welcoming and encouraging the energy and ideas of their stakeholders. Too often, they’re squelched by officials who decide first and ask for feedback later.
To maintain hope of improving the school system, we need to nurture a powerful, collaborative movement for change. Every one of us in our schools and communities has a role to play in building a movement with the strength to overcome the obstacles we confront.
The Notebook’s primary role in this effort is informational. When stakeholders are well-informed about what is happening in their schools and about the policies that affect them, they can become more effective advocates for children and build school communities that are responsive to children’s needs.
Our paper provides a vehicle for grassroots voices to be heard by those in power. We have a unique role to play in telling the stories of those in schools and communities who are working, teaching, and organizing for better schools. We could easily fill a quarterly paper twice this size with articles about the committed folks doing good work across the city. This issue reflects some inspiring examples of that work from the past decade, representing the thousands of Philadelphians who are committed to improving our schools.
As our readers, you can also help nurture a movement – starting by staying informed and being an advocate. We urge you to support the organizations you read about here; if you like what you read about a project or campaign, contact that group to ask how you can help. Use the "Who ya gonna call?" list on page four to let your school, city, and state officials know what you think about the problems in schools. And finally, please contact us and tell us the stories we may be missing or the issues we need to address.
Only by building a grassroots public will for good schools can we create the powerful force we need to bring our dreams of bold change to fruition.