This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In the beginning, what the founders of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook hoped to achieve might best be described as providing some “‘Ah-ha!’ moments.”
“We would have these discussions about what we wanted the paper to look like and accomplish,” recalled co-founder Myrtle L. Naylor. “And we thought that when it got into the hands of parents and teachers and students, they would pick it up and have an ‘Ah-ha!’moment and say, ‘Let’s get organized and do something about this.’”
The Notebook grew out of the hope for such “Ah-ha!” moments, out of the hearts and living rooms of its founders, and also out of a long history of community activism for educational quality and equity in the city.
The paper was a product of the peculiar nature of the times. In the early 1990s, Philadelphia’s schools experienced a number of jolts, starting with the departure of long-time superintendent Constance Clayton. Then Commonwealth Judge Doris Smith handed down a scathing ruling on the District’s two-decade-old desegregation case, stating that the District had violated the educational rights of children in racially isolated schools and demanding rectification of educational inequities.
For many education activists, the need for an independent progressive voice to help make sense of issues and promote and organize for a radical new agenda in the Philadelphia schools became paramount.
“It was clear that the public schools in Philly were just in a bad state, but it seemed that there was very little outcry about how bad things were,” said co-founder and current Notebook editor Paul Socolar. “Court rulings alone weren’t going to bring about change. There had to be a movement to push on those issues.”
In the spring of 1993, a small group of parents and teachers began talking about the possibility of a newspaper as a vehicle for change.
Many activists had long found the environment around the schools to be challenging at best. Naylor, then a parent of a public school child, recalled a District that was “secretive” and “hush-hush” about its practices. Socolar, also a parent, said that he had to go to “a ton of meetings” to get any information on what was happening in the District.
The hope was that the Notebook would provide information to people directly involved in the life of the schools in order to empower them to demand change.
“There was a consensus that this needed to be a voice out of the mouths of parents, teachers, school staff, and students that talked about the real District and the reasons for the institutional racism,” Naylor said.
“All of us had a very strong sense of the injustice of the current situation in the schools,” Socolar said. “We wanted to raise our voices about what was going on in a way that didn’t play into the hands of people who were against public education.”
From the beginning, it was clear the Notebook would be no ordinary paper. Parent voices and a parent audience had to be fundamental. School funding inequities that mainstream media called "controversies,” the Notebook would write about as fact. Special needs issues were going to be highlighted.
“You give parents a voice – it’s radical,” said co-founder Eric Joselyn, a teacher who has been the Notebook’s cartoonist since the first issue. “Every time you give a family of a special ed kid a voice, it’s challenging because that is what’s usually excluded.”
Other core assumptions became clear. The paper would have to:
- be bilingual in at least Spanish and reach out to bilingual communities in the District;
- highlight the work of community-based and school-based organizations of education activists;
- address social issues like class and race inequities and the nation’s skewed budget priorities, pointing out that many school problems mirror larger social injustices.
“We had some spirited discussions – I mean some spirited discussions,” Naylor laughed.
For nearly a year, the Notebook‘s first enthusiasts worked on their ideas and tried to diversify the planning group racially. Parent Hana Sabree, originator of the Notebook‘s “Eye on Special Education” column, recalled being drawn to the paper by the late Shafik Abu Tahir, a longtime Philadelphia activist who was involved.
“He said I had to come and get to know this paper,” Sabree said. “And it was just a great, diverse group of people. It was a dedicated grassroots effort.”
In May 1994, with a grant from Bread and Roses Community Fund, the Notebook was able to publish its first, 12-page issue under the banner headline, “Unfair State Funding for Schools Challenged.” Distributing the first run of 10,000 copies was a feat in itself.
“We delivered the paper ourselves, to the schools, supermarkets, libraries, laundromats – you name it,” Sabree said. “We lugged it everywhere.”
It took several issues before District administrators accepted that stacks of this independent newspaper belonged on the counter in school offices.
As the Notebook grew, one of the challenges was finding the right balance between the Notebook as an information tool and the paper as an advocacy voice stimulating and supporting education organizing.
The effort of putting out four issues a year on volunteer time was enough to consume all the efforts of the paper’s supporters.
Nevertheless, the paper held onto its vision of using its work to highlight and support local organizing efforts. Chip Smith, hired in 1995 as the Notebook‘s first staff person, prioritized building relationships with activist and organizing groups, providing a model for what was to become the Notebook‘s community outreach project. Two years ago, the paper developed this vision with the hiring of its first full-time outreach coordinator, Amy Rhodes.
In the past five years, under the stewardship of editor Paul Socolar, the Notebook has grown up well beyond the imaginings of its first group of dreamers. For many of the founders, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of looking back on the past ten years has been the ability of the paper to reach beyond its original mission and be useful in so many ways across the region.
“It’s a sheer delight to see it,” Joselyn said. “It’s got a life beyond what we envisioned.”
“We’ve come a long way together,” Sabree said. “Things aren’t the way they were, and we have a lot to be thankful to the Notebook for that.”