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Newly appointed school board members start a listening tour

listening session pic wayne walker
Darryl C. Murphy

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

Last night at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical High School, community members got to voice their concerns about the District to four members of the mayor’s newly appointed school board, but didn’t get a chance to learn about the appointees and their views.

With their first “listening session” since being named by Mayor Kenney on April 4, the members began “the dawn of a new era for Philadelphia schools,” said Chris Satullo, co-founder of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, which is running the meetings for the Mayor’s Office of Education.

The board will take over governance of the District from the state-dominated School Reform Commission on July 1.

The intent is for new appointees to “listen and learn,” said Harris Sokoloff, director of the Penn Project.

“The goal is for residents to talk with each other and for the new board members to listen and then reflect back what they heard,” said Sokoloff. “There will be plenty of time for Q&A when they take office.”

About 100 people attended the session in the Dobbins auditorium and were introduced to Wayne Walker, Maria McColgan, Angela McIver and Joyce Wilkerson, who resigned as chair of the SRC to take the school board position. Afterward, the audience was split into five groups and each was asked to come up with a series of issues for the school board to prioritize. Inside classrooms, about 20 people were split into even smaller groups to brainstorm.

Walker, president of Walker Nell Partners, a business consulting firm, sat in with a group concerned about bullying, parent and family engagement, CTE training, more community check-ins, and truancy and lateness.

Ruth Birchett, an alum of Strawberry Mansion High School, which is now undergoing a controversial transition from a comprehensive school to a skills-based school, said she’d like to see the School District “consider stakeholders during transitions” and insist that they be part of the decision-making process.

The Strawberry Mansion community has complained that the District’s plan was developed without their input. Parent Alison McDowell stood next to McIver for much of the night silently holding a sign that said “Save Strawberry Mansion.”

When the groups reconvened in the auditorium, the appointees commented on what they learned from the brainstorm sessions they witnessed.

“What I walk away with are a few things,” said Walker. “One, knowing that we all care. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s why you can multiply my salary 1,000 times. But we care as board members and as stakeholders. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a student … you care. So what do I take away from knowing that we care? That we have to work together.”

Other groups wanted to see changes or improvements made in several areas: attendance, food, school safety, professional development for teachers, and the complex bureaucracy of the District.

“There are a lot of people – just look at the turnout here – that really want to make a difference,” said McColgan. “And I heard a lot of hope.”

Lisa Haver, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, was critical of the event’s lack of a question and answer session to find out what the board members intend to do about the concerns. For her, it was a missed opportunity to understand what other community members are thinking.

“I’d like to know what other people are thinking about the issues of governance and transparency,” she said. ”But there was no session where we could ask the school board members what are they going to do.”

Notes were taken during each session and will be typed up in a report for both the public and board members to review.

The next listening session will take place at the South Philadelphia Branch of the Free Library from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 5.

Disclosure: The Notebook is working with the Social Impact Collaborative and Chris Satullo on a parent engagement strategy.

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