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Glimmers of optimism

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With a bleak financial predicament facing Philadelphia public schools, it is hard to maintain optimism about the future of public education here. As the Notebook reflects on 20 years of publishing in pursuit of educational quality and equity, we cannot say students are better off than they were in 1994. But we do see encouraging trends – both growing wisdom and evidence that an informed, engaged community can make a difference.

For example, we know now that the early years are critical for child development and that high-quality pre-K can help ensure success in school. In 1994, full-day kindergarten still was missing from most high-poverty schools here. That fight has been won, and now the public campaign has moved to expanding access to quality pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. With most state legislators and the governor up for election this year, the “Pre-K for PA” campaign is positioned to win a statewide commitment to new investments in early education.

The Notebook is proud of the gains that have been made on another key equity issue – building awareness of how harsh disciplinary practices lead to unequal punishment of Black and Brown students and the criminalization of young people. In 2002, a Notebook investigation flagged a growing practice of punishing kindergartners with out-of-school suspensions. In recent years, activists have pushed to replace “zero-tolerance” policies with a restorative justice approach and a focus on root causes of behavior problems. Concerns about a school-to-prison pipeline are being recognized at the highest levels: The U.S. Department of Education has released data showing that even in preschool, Black students are expelled at rates nearly three times higher than Whites. And policies and practices are slowly changing.

The Notebook has also contributed in building awareness of the obscenely high dropout rate in the city. Making the problem visible was a necessary step in pressing the school system to address it. A citywide dropout prevention effort has moved the needle – a decade ago, only half of District students were graduating, and now two-thirds do so. We don’t have this problem all figured out: Graduation rates for Black and Latino males are still below 60 percent, but they have climbed.

On these and other issues, the Notebook has contributed to growing awareness and to greater transparency in the schools. Getting data from the District and charter schools is often a struggle. But over two decades, we have gradually established the public’s right to know how schools are doing on a wide variety of indicators. That is an important victory for us all.

Improving K-12 public education is now the top issue for voters in Pennsylvania, according to pollsters. This is great news. A broad public shares a sense of urgency about problems in public schools. And Philadelphia has a wide array of groups organizing parents, students, and other concerned community members.

But 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board court decision, it is incomprehensible that a school system like Philadelphia’s, serving mostly students of color, must beg for dollars just to keep its doors open for another year with grossly inadequate staffing.

This outrage is an opportunity: to build a broad coalition, not just in Philadelphia but across the state – to demand more resources for public education and an end to this neglect of a generation of young people.

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