This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
While Mayor Kenney’s 13-member nominating panel is interviewing potential candidates for the new Philadelphia school board, which will replace the School Reform Commission this summer, a group of potential candidates calling itself the "People’s School Board Slate” is publicly campaigning for seats.
The main plank of the slate’s platform is for the new board to focus on the needs of people and prioritize the ideals of equity and quality rather than just concentrating on making ends meet in the chronically cash-strapped School District. The latest forecast has the District running a $700 million deficit by 2022, given current revenue projections and fixed expenditures. Like its predecessor, the School Reform Commission, the new Board of Education will not have its own taxing power.
“We’ve got to have someone on the school board who understands that behind those numbers — behind that deficit, behind those school closings — there are children behind those numbers,” said Sheila Armstrong, a member of the slate.
The People’s School Board Slate is made up of parents, educators, and organizers from groups that came together to form the Our City Our Schools coalition, which led the charge for an end to the SRC and a return of the city’s public schools to local control. The slate includes eight adults and two students.
The slate is holding its first town hall event on Jan. 31, which is the deadline for school board applications. Starting at 6:30 p.m., the town hall event it will be live-streamed on the coalition’s Facebook page and at various watch-parties around the city.
The two nominating panel members who were interviewed agreed that they must listen to a wide variety of voices and that the new board should have a large complement of “stakeholders,” or people most affected by conditions in the schools.
“It’s important for us to consider the responses that we’re hearing from the broader community, because at the end of the day, we represent a broad constituency,” said nominating panel member Ivy Olesh, a parent who helped found the Friends of Chester Arthur group that supports her neighborhood school.
The other panel member, Kendra Brooks, had once been a member of the slate herself. She forfeited her chance to be on the new board when she accepted Mayor Kenney’s invitation to help nominate members.
Too often, decision-making “comes down to statistics and not people,” Brooks said. “I think we need to make tough decisions based on statistics and our human capital. I’m looking for someone who has a passion for people, because our education system deals with the poor and economically disadvantaged in our city.”
It is crucial to have on the school board people who have “an investment — not a financial investment, but a true stakeholder, like parents and community members,” Brooks said. “I want someone who’s aware of the school-to-prison pipeline and how those [discipline] decisions affect children from the cradle to the grave.”
Olesh also supported Brook’s concern that as many board members as possible should be stakeholders — teachers, current parents, future parents, neighbors, etc. In other words, people who are directly affected by conditions in the city’s schools.
But Olesh also wants to ensure that the board has members with a broad range of skills.
“As a nominating panel, we should consider the broad team that will be the school board here in Philadelphia, because each individual member obviously can, and should, be evaluated on their own, but what’s going to make this a successful group is the complementary array of skills that people bring to the table,” she said. “It’s very important for us to have a diverse array of different interests in Philadelphia represented on the board from business to nonprofit to faith-based, etc.”
Here are mini-profiles of members of the People’s School Board Slate who responded to interview requests.
Sheila Armstrong, an organizer with the interfaith coalition POWER, said she was inspired to put her name on the People’s Slate because her personal experience, growing up in poverty and attending District schools, gives her an important perspective. Sexually abused by her father, she dropped out of high school and left home after a Department of Human Services intervention – initiated by concerned school staff – backfired and left her trapped in her abusive household.
“I was labeled an ‘at-risk student’ because of my behavioral issues,” Armstrong said. “Unfortunately, I ended up dropping out of high school in 1991 — though I went back to get my GED in 1999 and graduated with my master’s in 2013. What puts a passion in my heart and a fire in my belly to do this work is thinking about the children across the city that are dealing with situations like I was and need help and don’t know where to turn to.”
As a child, she felt that “society had forgotten about me. … People didn’t care, because I was a little black girl going to school in a section of the city called The Bottom.”
She adds: “But they don’t even call it The Bottom anymore. They call it University City.”
After finding her religious conviction and getting involved in her church, Armstrong joined POWER as a parent-organizer five years ago and was the first parent to join its education strategy team. Armstrong spoke proudly of the 10 days she spent fasting with POWER while camped out in Harrisburg in 2015 as part of POWER’s Moral Monday campaign. She is also a plaintiff in the state’s fair funding lawsuit, and most recently, she represented POWER in the Our City Our Schools coalition.
“So many people wrote me off and told me I was nothing growing up,” she said. “So yeah, I have a chip on my shoulder, trying to prove to myself that I’m good enough. … I want to fight for children growing up like I did, who didn’t come from affluent families.”
Armstrong has two sons in the District. One is autistic, yet “thriving” in a culinary program at his school. Armstrong doesn’t see why some schools have a host of electives and non-academic programming, but others have hardly any, and she wants to change that.
“Yes, I’ve got a master’s degree in business. I’ve sat on many boards and associations,” she said. “But for me, it’s the personal part that matters. What we need going forward is people who’ve got passion and heart for this work. We understand policies have to be created — we’ve got rules and regulations, and we’ve got a deficit we’ll be facing — I understand all the negatives.”
Before joining the People’s Slate, Aileen Callaghan first connected with the Our City Our Schools coalition through her work as a steering committee member of Reclaim Philadelphia—a nonprofit formed by staffers and volunteers for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign during the summer of 2016. The group canvasses to elect progressive politicians at the local level and lobbies politicians on policy issues such as mass incarceration and workers’ rights.
Callaghan, 24, a single mother, is the co-chair of Reclaim’s education task force, where she pushed for the organization to join the Our City Our Schools coalition last fall.
“We need to have all of the funds coming from the state go through the fair funding model,” Callaghan said. She was referring to a school funding formula approved by the state legislature last year to distribute funds based on need. But lawmakers decided to push only new funding through the formula, not all the state’s basic education aid — a decision that has cost Philadelphia about $300 million a year.
“Our schools are operating at about a $2,000 per-student deficit compared to what that model would give us, and there’s even more disparity at the school level.”
Callaghan has a teaching degree and was a student teacher in Philadelphia, where she saw that school-level disparity first hand. For part of the time, she taught both in “deep North Philadelphia” and at schools in more affluent neighborhoods in the Northeast.
The North Philadelphia school “was an incredible school, and I loved the atmosphere,” Callaghan said. “It was hands-down my best experience teaching, but there weren’t resources for the kids and there was no running water on the third floor.
“But when I was in the Northeast, the students had ceramics classes with their own kiln. It broke my heart, because why do these kids have a kiln when those other kids don’t have running water?”
She added that this does not mean she would advocate cutting funding from existing schools, but rather would favor prioritizing higher-need schools when allocating new funding.
“We cannot fight over the crumbs we receive and must demand more funding for all of our children,” she said.
Callaghan seemed to imply that at every level – within the country, the state, and even the District – financial decisions are not being made with the actual needs of all students in the forefront.
“No matter how many [professional development] workshops we have, if we don’t have running water, if we don’t have functioning toilets and our basic needs aren’t met, how is a kid not going to feel like a burden? How are they not going to feel forgotten? And what does it do to a child to feel that way?”
Callaghan is pleased with the mayor’s universal preschool initiative, but said she knows the roughly 2,000 seats created so far are not nearly enough. She tried to enroll her son, but the preschools near her were already full. She plans on sending him to their neighborhood school, Alain Locke Elementary, for kindergarten.
And, like Brooks, Callaghan wants the city to get creative with finding new sources of funding, saying “corporations aren’t paying their fair share” of taxes and neither are educational institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, which are tax-exempt. Efforts to assess PILOTS, or payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, for Penn and other universities and hospitals have not so far been successful.
Tonya Bah, the mother of two public school students, cited her experience growing up as a biracial child in Olney as a driver of her passion for education.
“My neighbors behaved as if they had never seen a family like mine,” Bah wrote in an email. “It didn’t take long before comparisons to Zebras, Oreo cookies, newspapers, and anything else black and white were verbally hurled at my siblings and I.”
She recalled that as a small child, she was asked by one of the neighbor children what it was like to have a white father.
“I innocently replied, ‘I don’t know, my dad’s pink,’” she said. “I became a target on my block, and my main source of peace was often found inside the classroom, safe and protected by classwork, homework assignments, and the goodwill of unsuspecting teachers.”
Bah, a public school graduate, is the Home & School president for Widener Memorial School, which serves K-12, and the School Advisory Council facilitator for Wagner Middle School. She worked for the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), where she helped adults get job training and enter the workforce, and now works as a Lead Hazard Awareness consultant.
“I’ve seen adults who pretended for weeks not to care about much. They’d begin our program with this tough exterior,” she said. “Not even four weeks in, you’d literally see a physical transformation: a light bounce in their step, the clothes pressed neater, their tie a little straighter, and a smile that could light up a bridge. I believe education actually is the great equalizer, and having seen its benefits firsthand, I’ll always be a staunch defender of it.”
Bah’s top priority as a school board member would be the curriculum.
“The school curriculum should be about what students need, not about what textbook companies push,” she wrote in her slate bio. The curriculum should include “Civics and authentic historical experiences for Native Americans and the truth in print regarding people of color before they were enslaved,” she wrote in an email.
Her biggest problem with the SRC, she said, is a lack of transparency. She said it’s not even clear what the city’s big-picture goals are.
“The school superintendent and mayor could share what the objective around education actually is for Philadelphia,” she said. “Is public education’s priority to level expenditures with revenue at any cost to the students of Philadelphia? Buried in the 297-page [fiscal year] 2017 Consolidated Budget, there’s a reference to the inadequate school building conditions and the reductions of school personnel or positions.”
Horace Ryans has joined the slate and he’s hoping for the non-voting student representative position, which will be filled by the members of the Board of Education. Ryans is a sophomore at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) who has attended both District and charter schools and is also the special projects coordinator for UrbEd Inc. — a nonprofit education advocacy group formed by recent city high school graduates and funded by a grant from Bread & Roses.
Ryans plans to teach in Philadelphia after graduating from college.
“[Superintendent William] Hite had a board with students that he would talk to, but maybe that wasn’t enough,” Ryans said. “Those students weren’t allowed into the decision-making process of the school board.”
Ryans has grown up in West Philadelphia, where, he said, “I saw a difference in the way we [kids] spent our time. Most of my cousins and friends spent time messing around after school, doing things they shouldn’t be doing, but I was raised around afterschool programs.” It’s the board’s job to ensure students have “interesting activities after school, instead of just going back home to often-violent neighborhoods.”
“We need someone who’s woke and fully aware of what’s going on in our city,” he said. But it’s also important to have “different perspectives on the school board to represent everybody. … But putting someone on the school board just because they do something related to government or business is not going to help.”
Olesh said she plans to use the “Friends of” groups’ network to get the word out about the online application for a board seat, which is due Jan. 31. Paper applications can also be picked up and dropped off at City Hall Room 204 by that date.
“I think all of us should be using our personal and professional affiliations and networks to distribute information about the application and the nomination form,” Olesh said. “We want the largest number of applicants and the most diverse array of applicants possible.”