This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At a rally of thousands held in April, Superintendent William Hite vowed to support the community organizing group POWER in its newly launched campaign to organize public school parents into an effective citywide force.
Hite agreed to meet regularly with POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild), an interfaith group of 40 dues-paying congregations founded in 2010. Hite said he will encourage principals to let the group organize in their schools. In return, he asked POWER’s members to help lobby for education funding in Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
“Good jobs don’t happen without education. It is a constitutional right,” Hite said.
“And it is also the responsibility of the state – the same state that has cut money out of the budget of the District. We can’t go up there alone. We need this kind of organization standing behind us.”
POWER’s speakers and organizers said that parents are tired of the District’s “top-down” system where leaders show little concern for their needs.
“Too often, parents and students are seen as an afterthought while decisions are made about their future,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler of South Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“The governor, the mayor, the SRC, District administration, local school leaders – everyone gets a say, it seems, about the future of Philadelphia schools except the parents and students who are in those schools. The general consensus is that the voice of parents simply doesn’t matter.”
POWER had been focused on jobs, most recently campaigning to ensure fair wages and access to construction and permanent jobs in the planned expansion of the Philadelphia airport. But the group is also campaigning for immigration reform and “pathways to citizenship,” and for better public schools. POWER’s education agenda has two main goals – to organize partnerships between congregations and their local schools and to organize citywide campaigns for more systemic change.
POWER is working now to organize parents at four elementary schools: Nebinger, Spring Garden, Universal Bluford, and Fulton – which is slated to close in June.
In all four cases, POWER was already partnering with the schools. Tyler said that his church “adopted” Nebinger, but the school needs a greater organizing presence than one church can provide,
“Nebinger has a great principal and parents who really have high expectations – but like a lot of schools, [it’s] mired with some of the societal stuff,” he said.
Tyler said the school is very different from nearby Meredith Elementary, which draws students from the relatively affluent Queen Village. But he believes that good organizing can help balance the scales.
“I’m a Meredith father. When we hear from our principal that something’s going to be cut – we raised $15,000 in one night with phone calls and emails,” Tyler said.
“At a Nebinger, you’re talking about working parents that just don’t have those resources. That really is the difference.”