This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission voted to dissolve itself Nov. 16 after 16 years of running the School District of Philadelphia.
That vote was a huge victory for activists who had been working to replace the SRC for years. Now, as the new nine-member Board of Education holds its first public meeting July 9, these activists have high expectations.
“To make this happen was a culmination of a lot of grassroots organizations actually doing it at a time when folks were told that it was impossible,” said Ismael Jimenez, a Philadelphia public school teacher and member of the Caucus of Working Educators.
Jimenez said the Caucus plans to be present at every Board of Education meeting and to hold board members accountable. He added that he is looking forward to a board that will be more responsive to issues that directly affect students, parents, and teachers who are a part of the District.
“We’re hopeful that the school board will be very cognizant to everyday people, parents, and community members’ concerns when it comes to public education,” Jimenez said. “We hope that the board’s student representative will allow for more student voice.”
“We’re also going to be asking the school board to support our National Black Lives Matter week of action in schools,” he said, especially after the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, just endorsed it.
Kat Engleman, a spokesperson for Youth United for Change, which supported community initiatives to abolish the SRC, said the organization would like to see more social reform in schools as well, including more mental health resources.
Lisa Haver, a co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Schools, attended virtually every SRC meeting and is planning to speak at the first Board of Education meeting. She said the board should focus on keeping funding inside the classroom and shy away from “corporate education reforms” such as outsourcing services and opening charters while neighborhood schools are underfunded.
“We want the board to bring in proven reforms like smaller class sizes,” she said. “We want them to bring back school libraries, bring in reading specialists, and work on literacy, especially in the early years. We need to stop the flow of money out of the District and put that money back into the schools.”
As they seek change and a larger voice, the activists said they were feeling hope for the District’s future.
“I think [our goals are] more realistic than they ever have been in this city,” Jimenez said. “I hope the board creates something different, and we can get out of this stalemate that has been going on for the last 16 years with the SRC.”
Haver said: “If the board wants to do something, they can do it. If they’re willing to act independently and withstand political pressure, they can get things done.”
Engleman said that having a school board appointed by the mayor has allowed for more local control and a better chance that board members will listen to the community’s concerns.
“The fact that the mayor is directly appointing people is already a leg up,” she said. “That means there’s some level of accountability the school board has to folks in Philadelphia, unlike when they were appointed on a state level and there was no direct accountability.”
Engleman, though looking forward to the change, noted that people’s opinions of the board cannot be formed until it starts making decisions.
“We’re just going to have to see what happens when they actually get into office. It’s hard to judge [The board members’] bios seem fine, but the real test is going to come when they actually start practicing as a school board.”
The first meeting of the new Philadelphia Board of Education is at 5 p.m. Monday at the District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St.