This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
More than 400 people who attended five public listening sessions for incoming Board of Education members outlined myriad concerns about the School District, from inadequate funding to student bullying to communication with parents.
The report by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement (PPCE) on the sessions was released Monday, two weeks before the nine-member board is scheduled to have its first meeting and less than a week before it formally takes over governance of the District from the School Reform Commission, which is disbanding.
The listening tour, which took place during April and May, included five public listening sessions and small group conversations facilitated by PPCE at locations all over the city.
Eleven key themes arose during the tour: transparency; accountability; community engagement; funding and equity; charter schools; facilities; climate and culture; educational quality and programs; behavioral health, discipline and bullying; special education; and support for immigrant communities.
Transparency: Participants were frustrated with what they considered to be the School Reform Commission’s secretive nature. They wanted better ethics, clearer explanations, and school board meetings at times when more people could attend.
Accountability: Participants wanted the school board to follow through on its promises, explain who and what factors lead them to their decisions, and disclose their plans.
Community engagement: This theme focused on the relationship between schools and the public. Participants acknowledged that parents are sometimes disrespectful to school employees, but they wanted schools to be far more welcoming. To strengthen the relationship, community members voiced willingness to increase their involvement by volunteering in the schools.
Funding and equity: Participants were frustrated that suburban schools have so much more money to spend than District schools. They also identified imbalanced funding among schools in the District. Most participants acknowledged that they didn’t understand how budgeting is done.
Charter schools: The conversation about this theme was particularly heated. Many participants were frustrated with charters’ existence, but others were grateful for the opportunities that charter schools give parents. Most people agreed that the funding process for charters was complex and a problem.
Facilities: Participants agreed that the current state of school buildings has enormous consequences. They felt that not only do the conditions endanger the health of students and staff, they are demoralizing and detrimental to learning. People also mentioned that they had little understanding of how renovation, closing, and construction of schools was decided.
Climate and culture: Participants highlighted the importance of fostering more creative, safe, and vibrant environments in schools. They wanted increased accountability for principals in this area and wanted to maximize on this shift in power as a means to emphasize new ideals.
Educational quality and programs: Participants wanted the quality of schools to be less linked to zip codes. They asked for more acknowledgement of excellent teachers to help motivate them to stay.
Behavioral health, discipline, and bullying: Participants wanted schools to apply the principles of trauma-informed care and an increase in the use of restorative justice. Several people mentioned that children who are bullied often skip school, but then they are punished by truancy policies.
Special education: Many parents discussed their difficulties in locating services for their special-needs children. Their struggles stemmed from a combination of a lack of resources, a lack of official empathy, and a lack of information to help navigate existing services.
Immigrant communities: The discussion largely stemmed from the experience of mostly Chinese parents at Mayfair Elementary School, where the District plans to bus kindergarten and 1st-grade students to Meehan Middle School to alleviate overcrowding. This situation served as an example of the lack of District communication and outreach.
The new Board of Education plans to directly acknowledge the listening tour at its first public meeting, which is scheduled at 5 p.m. July 9 in the auditorium at School District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St.
The full PPCE report can be found here.