This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This story has been updated
After a June meeting with the parent advocacy group Parent Power in Harrisburg, State Sen. John Eichelberger returned the visit today at T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
The advocacy group, led by former School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms and her sister Quibila Divine, organized a meet-and-greet at Peirce, their neighborhood school, with Eichelberger, the Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. About 20 adult community members showed up with children in tow. He led a discussion about education and fielded questions from frustrated local parents on topics including transparency, funding, and career and technical education.
He was later joined by State Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat whose district includes Peirce Elementary. Eichelberger’s mostly rural district lies between Lancaster and Pittsburgh, including all or part of Blair, Fulton, Franklin, Cumberland, and Huntingdon Counties.
Eichelberger said that although his trips to Philadelphia have usually been for meetings with the District brass and/or charter operators, this trip was a chance for something different.
“The one group that we talked about that I haven’t really spent time with are the parents,” said Eichelberger, who traveled alone. “The people that live in communities that care about what’s going on within their own community, within their own schools and so on. They have opinions, and I want to hear what you folks have to say.”
After briefly sharing his opinions on school choice, “vo-tech programs”— now known as Career and Technical Education – and school accountability, the senator listened to the concerns of parents, which ranged from principals denying parents access to school to a lack of resources for special-needs students.
But the recurring themes that prevailed through each topic were transparency and parent involvement, for which Eichelberger offered his support. He said that he would step in and help in any way he can and that parents “need the ability to be critical and involved instead of being just bystanders.”
“Now it’s at a point where it’s kind of like a hands-off thing,” he said. “‘Don’t bother us. We’re in charge, don’t bother us.’ And that’s gone way too far. I feel for that, I really do. And we’ve got to address that systemwide.”
In early June, Parent Power organized a trip to Harrisburg to see a Senate Education Committee hearing about the Keystone Exam and family engagement. After a conversation where she found the senator “honest and open,” Simms, the former SRC commissioner, invited Eichelberger to Philadelphia to meet with local parents.
Despite the divisiveness of U.S. politics, Simms said Eichelberger’s political affiliation didn’t matter to her. She sought to build a relationship, especially because he chaired the Education Committee.
“When you have a Republican, and I’m a Democrat, you don’t know them until you meet them," said Simms. “And just because a person is a Republican or a Green party, or whatever party they want to serve, doesn’t mean they’re bad.”
Colleen Peebles, whose child is a 4th-grade student at Peirce, was skeptical of politicians, regardless of party. She said that what both Sens. Eichelberger and Street were saying sounded good, but “until you can actually prove it, then I’ll believe it.”
When a group of students and parents from Cassidy and Greenberg Elementary Schools visited Eichelberger in Harrisburg in June to plead for more money for Philadelphia schools, he was not terribly receptive to the idea that the District should get more money from Harrisburg. Instead, he told the students that the District is the cause of its financial problems and said the School Reform Commission should approve more charters.
“If they allow more charter schools to come, you might be able to go to one of those schools that would be a nicer, better environment for you,” he told the Cassidy and Greenberg students during their visit.
Eichelberger wasn’t the only draw for parents and community members at Peirce. There were also giveaways to help families with the new school year. Children had their pick of books, thanks to Tree House Books, located in North Philadelphia, and parents took home items such as diapers, blankets, and food.
There were also backpacks provided by Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit organization fighting childhood poverty, and coupons for the Hair Cuttery.
Simms said that she was pleased with the outcome and that she plans to have Eichelberger as a guest again.
“He needs to hear the voice of people he doesn’t know,” she said. Having a relationship with people who live in Philadelphia can be a “good collaboration.”
“Everything is a work in process,” she said. “This is a good start to a new year.”