This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Darryl C. Murphy
Over the weekend, education advocates gathered to talk about solidarity in the School District.
Two groups –Parents United for Public Education and Teacher Action Group – held separate daylong events, which included workshops and discussions and were aimed at unifying families, educators, and students.
Held at Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, Teacher Action Group’s ninth annual Education for Liberation conference followed the theme of creating a united front to transform schools and the city. The six-hour event explored the effects in schools of social issues such as racism, gentrification, sexism, gender inequality, immigration, and school safety – all hot-button topics in Philadelphia.
“There’s no way to transform our schools without thinking about how schooling represents the linchpin of the dominant narrative,” said Chris Rogers, a member of TAG, who works with teachers on their professional development. “We know in order to change our education system, we have to be thinking about our connections to economic justice, racial justice, gender justice if we’re thinking about a full transformation.”
Kai Walker, a member of Corajus, a local organization dedicated to ending racial disparities through grassroots education, led a workshop on gentrification and displacement. In it, they (Walker’s preferred pronoun) took a classroom of about 30 people through the history of housing discrimination; the roots of gentrification, especially in the Society Hill neighborhood; and how the continued practice affects vulnerable students.
Some are displaced, driven out by higher property taxes. The more fortunate, perhaps, watch the culture and dynamics of their neighborhood vanish as residents with more resources and more demands move in. The result is higher property value and local amenities, but the benefits don’t always carry over to local schools because many of the gentrifying parents send their children to schools outside the neighborhood.
“What’s really critical is for people to understand that there is a connection between housing, wealth, income equality, and schooling,” said Walker. “And really looking into the history of gentrification, the context of which we’re living in today, is really important, so we can understand what is happening to our students and what’s happening to our schools.”
Ryan Warwick, a teacher at Mastery Simon Gratz High School, is from Washington, D.C., a city changed dramatically by gentrification. She sat in on the workshop and said she discusses topics like gentrification in her class using books such as Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a story about a teenage girl whose life changes drastically after seeing her friend get killed by a police officer. Warwick said the book helps introduce such topics as gentrification and helps students articulate their experiences.
Aubre Tyler, a senior at Central High School, said the workshop was enlightening. Originally from North Philadelphia, she said she had seen the effects of Temple University’s slow and controversial expansion.
“I knew it was communities being pushed out of their homes because of different infrastructures,” said Tyler. “But I didn’t know it was private institutions doing it.”
Tyler is also a member of Youth United for Change, which also had members attend the Parents Summit at St. Joseph’s University on City Line Avenue. They led a workshop on “the challenges and strategic need for solidarity between students and parents while building power” in local school communities.
Andres Celin, lead organizer of YUC, and Sasha Melendez, a student member who’s a senior at Kensington CAPA, led the session with a discussion about attendance policies. Audience members were split into three groups to examine the topic from the perspectives of teachers, students, and parents.
Melendez said she hopes to help school communities understand that there is more than one way to create a policy and that good communication can greatly benefit schools. She said her own struggles as a student who has faced harsh discipline has informed her work.
“There are other ways to design and implement policies that would meet the needs of students, parents, and teachers,” she said. “I envision a place where schools and their administration would sit down with these parents at the School Advisory Councils and get their input before coming up with policies. To be able to create a better school, a better environment in the school, better policies that suit everyone.”
Their workshop was one of nine that were geared toward improving parent relationships with students and schools. Other workshops covered the benefits of Home & School Associations, school funding, community control, and how to advocate for student success. In addition to Parents United, the event’s co-organizers were Power Interfaith, Philadelphia Home & School Council, and Just Act.
Some participants from the TAG conference also showed up for the Parent Summit. The two groups collaborate often and they confirmed that the simultaneous scheduling was due to a misunderstanding.
Kendra Brooks, a parent advocate for Parents United, said: “Moving forward, we need to be more intentional that as parents learn and grow, we can connect and have those deeper conversations with teachers. … This work with parents, just like this work with youth, is all connected to our work with teachers.”