This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Elizabeth Fiedler for NewsWorks
Once your kids hit the age of 5, it’s time to move to the suburbs. Or at least that’s how it has gone for generations of middle- and upper-class parents in Philadelphia.
Most of the news out of Philadelphia schools lately has been the kind to lead city parents who have the option to start lining up a moving van: deficits, school closings, teacher layoffs, cheating scandals.
But these days some Philadelphians are taking a different approach. In neighborhoods from Graduate Hospital to East Falls to Fishtown, they’re vowing to stay put, pitching in to help their neighborhood school improve. And they’re doing this well before their children are ready for kindergarten, or even before they’re born.
Consider Ivy Olesh, a 30-year-old resident of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood who has become, for many Philly parents, a go-to source of advice on grassroots school-building.
This effort was born before her daughter was.
Before Olesh had a child, she started "Friends of Chester Arthur." Why start organizing in support of her local public school before she was even a parent?
"We wanted to sort of get involved before people felt they needed to move out of the city because their kids were just about old enough to enter school," Olesh said. Now she has a 2-year-old and vows to keep living in the city.
The many hours she puts in advocating for her neighborhood school come on top of the full-time job she holds — economic development work at the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
Olesh says her neighborhood organization was inspired to start by a similar group at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia.
Philadelphia has enough people like Ivy Olesh that, if they all stick with decisions to raise their families in the city, it could have a significant impact on Philadelphia’s demographics — and on the city school system’s ability to sustain itself.
"I think it’s really important to raise our child in the city, in diversity with access to everything that the city has to offer and everything that we love from the city," Olesh said, citing the city’s walkability as well as its cultural institutions, parks, restaurants and activities. "I really feel strongly that we owe it to our children and maybe even the next generation at large to keep everybody sort of together and not have any sort of segregation. I think sometimes you see that in the suburbs a little bit, around socioeconomic class specifically."
Like many new Philadelphia parents, Olesh says, she and her husband support public education but couldn’t ignore all the negative things they’d heard about Philadelphia public schools: "’They’re bad, they’re inadequate, they’re unsafe.’" But their solution was not to call a Realtor; it was to visit their local school.