This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Ken Derstine, 70, a retired teacher and committed public school activist, died Saturday in Washington State, where he had gone to live with his sister after several months of declining health.
Derstine taught in the Philadelphia School District for 37 years. After retirement, he became part of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a watchdog group composed of former and current District employees. He was a fixture at nearly every meeting of the School Reform Commission, where he videotaped all the proceedings to maintain a careful public record.
“He was so passionate and so deeply knowledgeable,” said Eileen Duffey-Bernt, a school nurse who worked with Derstine at Meredith Elementary School, and then in APPS. “Whenever he would talk about education reform, he had a big-picture sense of history, democracy, and ideas that blew me away and made me realize how smart he was.”
Derstine joined up with APPS after participating in Occupy 440, a campaign organized by Duffey-Bernt and several others after the District cut all its school nurses after drastic cuts in state education aid. About 100 nurses were laid off, and for months, they and their supporters showed up every Wednesday afternoon to demonstrate at District headquarters, rain or shine.
“I learned who my friends were when I did the nurse rallies,” said Duffey-Bernt. “Before, he had been the nice guy in the next classroom, but for this, he showed up.”
A former teacher of technology and special education, Derstine designed and maintained the APPS website and did extensive research into myriad education issues.
“Ken told me he planned on spending his retirement researching the background story behind why big-money interests were investing in what he saw as an alarming plan to dismantle public education as we know it,” Duffey-Bernt said.
That he did. For years, he sent out a daily newsletter that scoured local, state, and national sources for relevant writings on the educational reform movement that advocated for more privatization, which he pilloried as destructive. His newsletter was called the “Pennsylvania Education Crisis Highlights.”
For all his passion, he was quiet, preferring to stay in the background. Unlike the other APPS members, he did not regularly address the SRC. Instead, he diligently manned his camera, did his meticulous research, and updated the group’s website without drawing attention to himself.
He made an exception in April 2018 to speak about the planned phaseout of Strawberry Mansion as a neighborhood comprehensive high school. His remarks ran on his website, called Defend Public Education!, and were adapted for a Notebook commentary piece.
Superintendent William Hite said the reason for the phaseout was the school’s precipitously declining enrollment, which then stood at fewer than 300 students. Derstine, who went to the neighborhood and talked to local residents, wasn’t buying that. His speech drew on his sense of history and erudition.
“What caused the decline in enrollment? An economic, social, and psychological war was waged against the school over many years,” he said, his low-key delivery belying the force of his words. “In the school’s lobby stands a knight in armor, the football team’s mascot. This is appropriate because in the last 10 years, the school has been under siege. In the Middle Ages, if a king wanted to take over a town, he would have his knights surround it and cut off all commerce into and out of the town. When the town was reduced to starvation, the knights could easily occupy it. This is what has happened to Strawberry Mansion. Now, the school’s own symbol is a grim reminder.
“For 10 years, like all public schools in this period, Strawberry Mansion was starved of classroom resources, lost counselors, had a part-time nurse for many years, and lost a library with a certified librarian. Instead of putting resources into the school to lower class sizes and bring back support staff, the school was pushed over the cliff.”
At a goodbye event organized for Derstine in November 2018 just before he moved west to be with his sister, a community member from Strawberry Mansion thanked him for his commitment in song. Organizers expected seven or eight people at the event, but more than 30 showed up.
“He really cared about people on the margins, particularly urban public school kids. That’s what motivated him,” said Duffey-Bernt.
Derstine grew up in an evangelical Mennonite family in northeastern Pennsylvania, said Lisa Haver, a founder of APPS. As a young man, he refused to participate in the draft for the Vietnam War.
“He didn’t believe in the war or in killing people he had no beef with,” Haver said. Although he didn’t leave the country like some other draft resisters, he “went off the grid” and spent years traveling while “relying on the goodness of people,” according to Duffey-Bernt. Starting then and lasting for much of his adult life, he was estranged from most of his family.
He made his way to Philadelphia and decided to become a teacher.
“It turned out to be a great career for him,” Haver said. “He knew a lot about education and was really good to the kids.”
He was a true intellectual, she added. “I learned something from him every day.”
He taught in several schools throughout his career, including Meredith and Bache-Martin Elementary, which is where Leah Jafir first met him. She worked in information technology and was taking courses at Temple University with thoughts of making the switch to teaching. She was sent to observe Derstine’s computer classroom.
“I thought it looked chaotic and crazy when I first observed him for a whole semester,” she said. “But I realized that he just had a way with the kids. He always seemed like he wanted to be there. He was a true teacher, and he deeply cared about every child he taught.”
Jafir said they became friends, especially after Derstine retired.
“He was someone I would always turn to just to discuss the struggles in the classroom and beyond,” said Jafir, who now teaches English language learners at G.W. Childs Elementary School in South Philadelphia. “Anything about human rights or social injustices, or the political environment, he always had a different insight than independent or mainstream media might offer. … He taught me a lot about how to support people and not be judgmental and be true to yourself as well.”
He donated bountifully and often anonymously to various causes and organizations, especially those that served the city’s most needy. Sometimes he helped Jafir pay for field trips and supplies for her students. “He was always generous to those in need,” Duffey-Bernt said.
Although he had worked assiduously for the demise of the SRC and the return of the District to local control, Derstine’s health began to fail right around the time that the new Board of Education took over in July, and he was not present for most of their meetings. But the practice of videotaping them continues.
His friends described him as “minimalist” in his personal life, but Derstine enjoyed hiking and the occasional trip to the Metropolitan Opera.
His Philadelphia friends are planning a memorial service at a later date.
“He truly believed in all children having the right to a great public education,” said Jafir. “That’s his legacy.”