This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Why become a Notebook member?
"I love the paper, the information, and the people,” explained the Rev. LeRoi Simmons.
“It is great reporting that you’re not going to see anywhere else.”
Simmons, 63, first came across the Notebook when a co-worker arranged for the paper to be distributed at the Central Germantown Council, where Simmons is the executive director.
“I would see the paper there and say, ‘That looks nice,’ But then I read it and said, ‘I didn’t know this!’ It started giving me insight into the stuff that’s really going on behind the veil,” he said.
At the time, Simmons was heavily involved at Germantown High School, where his daughter Najah Purnell, now 29, graduated in 1999. Following a deadly shooting on Germantown Avenue, Simmons and other members of the Germantown Clergy Initiative organized 1,000 men to hold hands in prayer around the school. Quickly, the effort evolved into a safe corridors program that is still in operation.
“I would read the Notebook and it started informing my moves, especially the [data] centerfolds.”
Simmons’ first taste of education advocacy came 24 years ago, when his daughter attended Kelly Elementary School.
“Holding her hand, standing in the schoolyard, it was a rude awakening for me because there was not a lot of men there. … We would kind of organize the schoolyard so there wouldn’t be so much roughhousing,” Simmons said.
From that beginning, Simmons quickly became more involved in protesting poor conditions at the school.
“One of the biggest issues that came up was that Kelly was overcrowded. They put trailers out in the yard and put the kindergartners in the trailer. But there were no bathrooms, so in the wintertime, they were walking back and forth to go to the bathroom. It didn’t make sense, so we began to protest.”
Eventually, the group worked with the District to relocate the kindergarten program to a nearby Boys and Girls Club, in the process helping the struggling club to stay afloat by arranging the lease of its classroom space to the District.
From Kelly, Simmons followed his daughter to Pickett Middle School, where he took a job as the school and community coordinator.
There Simmons helped to create a parent room, get Pickett’s pool re-opened, and organize professional development sessions for teachers and curricular programs for students.
“We got [Temple professor and renowned Afrocentric education expert] Molefi Asante to come and teach a two-day class [for teachers] for free. I started organizing Black History Month programs, showed [students] Eyes on the Prize and all the stuff about the Black Panthers, and then the next day, I brought in Bobby Seale,” he said.
“I told the children, ‘You have acres of diamonds around here, and you ought to be conscious of that.’”
Now in his third decade of fighting to improve Germantown’s schools, Simmons said he is glad to have the Notebook as a resource.
“I can trust the Notebook because I know where its heart is,” Simmons concluded. “If you’re serious about the education of children in public schools in Philadelphia, you ought to be involved with the Notebook.”