This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This past year saw the crisis of the Philadelphia School District’s aging buildings come to a head as more were closed due to feared asbestos contamination. The story gained a painfully human face with the diagnosis of a longtime teacher with a type of cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure. In the face of devastating news, efforts to pry more money from the state to help the District modernize its infrastructure – from Democratic legislators, City Council members, advocacy groups and union activists – intensified. But there has been no sign that Harrisburg will heed these pleas by funding programs that it has already enacted to help Philadelphia and other districts make sure their buildings are free of health hazards.
Many of the most vital stories of the year were also the most popular with Notebook readers. In April, the District launched its Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR), which was the subject of our winter print edition, and one of those stories – about progress in integrating schools in one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods – drew high readership. The CSPR, a five-year process, has the potential to reshape the face of the District, starting in neighborhoods in South, North, and West Philadelphia.
A pivotal election in 2020 will determine the future of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers as the Caucus of Working Educators seeks to oust the union local’s longtime leaders. The WE caucus, a group of mostly younger, progressive educators, spent much of this year organizing and expanding its reach in preparation for its second challenge to PFT president Jerry Jordan and his team. WE champions a different approach to union leadership, focusing more on social justice and inequity issues than the traditional topics of trade union bargaining – wages, salaries, and working conditions. The election is scheduled for February.
In another indication of intensifying activism around the issues of inequality, the year also saw the historic election of Kendra Brooks to City Council as a member of the Working Families party. Brooks began her public life as an education activist in North Philadelphia fighting the takeover of her neighborhood school, Steel Elementary, by a charter organization.
During the District’s first full year back under local control, the Board of Education came under increasing pressure to clamp down on charter expansion and display a commitment to traditional public education that critics say was absent under the state-controlled School Reform Commission. The board did take an unprecedented step to return two charter schools to District control. Under the SRC, Olney High and Stetson Middle Schools had been ceded to ASPIRA as part of the Renaissance schools initiative that sought to turn around low-achieving schools by changing their management. The schools remain open as ASPIRA pursues appeals to the state.
The year also saw the problems of urban education reach the radar of presidential campaigns. Charter schools have become a flashpoint issue. And several Democratic candidates address persistent school segregation and inequity in education funding in their platforms. So 2020 is ripe with possibilities: Pennsylvania is a key battleground state and it has the starkest disparities in spending between its rich and poor districts. A historic lawsuit challenging the state’s funding system will come to trial in the summer.
What stories drew the most readers this year?
The relocation of Science Leadership Academy into the building that housed Benjamin Franklin High School was number one on the list, and the issue took a total of three spots in the top 10. The initial plan to invest heavily in renovating the old Ben Franklin building to split it in half to accommodate two very different high school communities generated a high level of interest. SLA is a selective admission, project-based school, and Ben Franklin is a neighborhood high school specializing in career and technical education.
However, it was the construction itself that proved to be the issue as the school year began, not any differences between the two schools’ cultures. When the project was not completed in time, students and staff moved in while renovations continued. Ultimately, asbestos contamination due to the work caused both school communities to be moved to temporary locations off-site. The upheaval, missed school days, and tense meetings with District officials actually brought the students, parents, and staffs of the two schools closer together, and they teamed up to develop relocation plans.
The remaining seven most-read stories run the gamut of public education issues, including the asbestos contamination plaguing many aging school buildings, charter schools, integration, teacher diversity, and special education. The third article on the list tells the story of two Philadelphia public school parents who were arrested by ICE this summer, 20 years after they fled Indonesia and applied for asylum in the United States. After languishing for months in separate detention facilities far from their children, they were finally released on bond on Dec. 16 and are now at home.
Most-read stories of 2019:
- SLA move to Ben Franklin leaves both communities nervous and excited
- School board unanimously denies three new charter school applications
- Indonesian parents, here for 20 years, await deportation under more stringent Trump policies
- Can a diverse neighborhood now integrate its schools? In Mount Airy, it’s happening.
- Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter plans four-day week for teachers
- Relocation of more than 1,000 SLA and Ben Franklin students still up in the air
- Ben Franklin, SLA school communities work together to respond to District’s relocation plans
- PFT, officials demand $100 million to clean up city schools after teacher’s cancer diagnosis
- ‘Revolutionary’ principal goes all-in on his quest for more black teachers
- Advocates say too many Special Ed students are not prepared for life after school