This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
With the election of Jim Kenney as mayor and Helen Gym as a City Council member, there is a new dynamic at City Hall regarding education policy.
Kenney is prioritizing work toward universal preschool, which has been a focus of the Nutter administration. But the mayor-elect has also thrown his support behind community schools as the primary reform strategy for the District.
And he named a highly regarded principal of a neighborhood high school, Otis Hackney, to be his chief education officer.
Under Hackney’s leadership since 2010, South Philadelphia High School has put together perhaps the most advanced effort in the city to implement the community school model, which involves re-envisioning schools as accessible, full-service centers for students and their families. Kenney says he wants to create 25 community schools citywide.
Just two weeks after the election, Kenney, Hackney, and City Council President Darrell Clarke traveled to Cincinnati to learn more about how that city has used this strategy as a way to revitalize district-run neighborhood schools.
That is a shift from Mayor Nutter’s approach. Over eight years, Nutter oversaw a substantial expansion of charters, while advancing the goal of having “a great school,” District-run or otherwise, in every neighborhood. In embracing the community schools strategy, Kenney has quickly found common cause with Clarke, who consistently clashed with Nutter on education issues.
Gym rode to Council on the strength of her education activism, in which she has been severely critical of the District and city policy of closing schools, growing charter enrollment, and using mostly test scores to decide which schools are candidates for turnaround and privatization. Gym was the leading vote-getter among Council at-large candidates.
Gym reiterated during her campaign that the “great schools” strategy is misguided in that it promotes the creation of “islands of greatness in oceans of inequity.”
Both Kenney and Gym received robust and unequivocal support from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which is currently at war with the District administration. Teachers have not had a new contract or a raise in over three years, and in the face of stalemated talks, the School Reform Commission sought in October 2014 to nullify the contract entirely. The matter is now in court. The union’s relationship with Nutter soured as budget cuts and the contract dispute deepened.