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This story has been updated to reflect Helen Gym’s official announcement that she is running for mayor.
Helen Gym, a prominent Philadelphia education activist whose work has touched on everything from crumbling buildings to school funding, said she will run for mayor next year.
Gym announced her campaign Wednesday, one day after resigning from the City Council. She is the fifth council member to step down recently amid speculation that all five will run for mayor in 2023.
Gym, 54, was elected to the council in 2015. A longtime organizer, parent of three, and former teacher, she rose to prominence as a vehement opponent of the state takeover of the city district and the reform strategies initiated by the School Reform Commission to create more charter schools and weaken the teachers’ union.
During the period when Philadelphia public schools were under state control, which lasted from 2001 to 2017, she co-founded the activist group Parents United for Public Education.
In an interview Tuesday, Gym spoke at length about her achievements before and after her election to council, and said that it is time for the city and the school district to “have a common mission” around the needs and welfare of young people.
In 2001, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge wanted to turn management of the Philadelphia district over to Edison Schools, then the largest for-profit manager of schools in the country. While Edison ended up operating about 20 schools, opposition from Gym and others turned back the plan for the company to run the entire district. That was one galvanizing issue for Gym, whose daughter was about to enter kindergarten around that time.
“It was clear as day we had no options but to change the politics of the city at that moment,” she recalled in the interview.
She opposed austerity measures imposed by the School Reform Commission, as well as its efforts to create more charter schools and turn over traditional public schools to charter operators. Ultimately, as a council member, Gym helped engineer the district’s return to local control after 17 years.
“As soon as I came onto city council, I had a mission to end the takeover, and prove that local control meant nurses, counselors, social workers, clean water, and specific attention to the health and safety of kids, especially mental health,” she said.
Her involvement with state education issues wasn’t limited to the School Reform Commission’s activities. Last year, she joined a contingent of Philadelphia activists who sat in at state legislators’ offices in Harrisburg to demand more money for city schools and the adoption of a fair education funding formula.
During her time on the council, she also spearheaded a school modernization project that, among other things, installed air conditioning in older buildings. She also worked with student activists demanding hydration stations in every school, in order to provide clean and safe drinking water.
Many schools “were literally falling apart,” she said. She recalled students at one school telling her they were afraid to enter the building. “It’s one thing to look at a school facilities report, it’s another thing to have a literal child tell you it’s unbearable,” she said.
Aside from strictly education issues, Gym is known for her work on expanding broadband service and legislation to provide legal representation to people facing eviction.
“I helped build huge grass roots movements, and many were about the school system, but it was bigger than schools,” she said. “Ultimately, it was fighting against the narrative that our communities didn’t matter.”
Aside from Gym, Derek Green, Maria Quinones-Sánchez, Alan Domb, and Cherelle Parker have resigned from the City Council and either announced or hinted at their ambitions to run for mayor in 2023. (Sitting officeholders are prohibited by law from running for another office.)
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart also stepped down in preparation for a run, and ShopRite owner Jeff Brown also said he is running.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s second and final term ends in January 2024.
Gym was a founder and the first editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, which evolved from a quarterly print publication to an online news site. The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia in 2020.
This story has been corrected to include the accurate number of Philadelphia schools that were managed by Edison.
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org.