Desperate Times for Schools in the City of Brotherly Love
Balloons rained down from the balcony. The 11th graders gathered in the auditorium screamed in delight.
And I couldn't help but feel profoundly sad.
Such is life in Philadelphia, my adopted hometown and former professional stomping grounds, where hundreds of public schools and tens of thousands of children have been left largely on their own to forage and fundraise for the basics of modern education.
Earlier this week, Academy at Palumbo High in South Philly received some welcome news: As part of consumer-technology giant Samsung's annual Solve for Tomorrow competition, a team of 15 students and two teachers won more than $140,000 in desperately needed technology for their school.
But it took just two days for the heavy black clouds hanging over the beleaguered 131,000-student district to return. Thursday night, district officials announced that in the six weeks since their last dire projections, the deficit they will carry into next school year has doubled, to $29 million. That's on top of the $200 million the skeletal district needs just to avert further emaciation next year, and not counting the $220 million that Superintendent William Hite says he needs to begin implementing some basic reforms.
And still, the grown-ups responsible for this mess are busy pointing fingers.
Other winners of Samsung's STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education contest were G.W. Carver Middle School in Miami; Montana's Sunburst Junior High; Oliver Street School in Newark, N.J.; and East Valley High School in Yakima, Wash. Students at each school used technology to develop innovative solutions to pressing problems in their immediate communities. (You can check all the projects out here.)
But for me, this one was all about the team from Palumbo, whose effort offers a glimpse into what those in the City of Brotherly Love's public schools have endured this year.
For starters, look at the project itself.
The teenagers at Palumbo felt they could best help their community by building a tool that would help city children—thousands of whom were displaced this year following two dozen school closings in 2013—find something they should be able to take for granted: a safe route to and from school.
"Our algorithm assigns values to each [possible route] based on the likelihood of danger from past crimes," explained senior Alex Wallace. "The Philadelphia police release crime maps, and this is just relating that data to technology."
In other words, Path A might be a more direct route to school than Path B, but if there's a history of shootings or robberies or assaults along the way, the tool envisioned by the Palumbo team will suggest that students take the scenic route.
It's an ingenious response to a problem that grown-ups, not children, should be competing to solve.
That points to the bigger problem in Philadelphia, where too many adults have either abandoned efforts to help the city's public school students or themselves become casualties of the ongoing budget cuts.
Five years ago, when I was reporting for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, I spent a year following three 9th graders, including a bright Academy at Palumbo student named Corey White.
Each morning, the 14-year-old was out the door of his Southwest Philly rowhome at 5:45 a.m. Corey liked to arrive at Palumbo an hour early each day so he could sit quietly in the algebra classroom of then-20-year veteran Stuart Kryzwonos, getting a little bit of extra tutoring and a lot of informal life lessons.
"He's goofy, just like me," Corey said of the man he called Mr. K. "And he doesn't sugarcoat anything."
Later during that 2008-09 school year, I spent time with Corey in his English class, taught by Latoyia Bailey, then a 10-year veteran with a Ph.D. in African-American history.
"I really can't describe it," Corey said of the strong impression Bailey was making on him. "It's just a feeling I get when I look at her. I just automatically feel natural."
Both Mr. Kryzwonos and Ms. Bailey are still at Palumbo, dedicating themselves to a new generation of Corey Whites. Teachers Susan Lee and Klint Kanopka, who gave hours of unpaid time to guide Palumbo's prize-winning STEM team, are clearly doing the same. And so is Principal Adrienne Wallace Chew, who told me with a smile on Tuesday that Corey recently graduated from Palumbo and joined the armed services.
But while the survivors at Palumbo are doing all they can, their ranks have been thinned dramatically.
Back in 2008-09, not long after it opened, the school had just 240 students, compared with 814 this year.
But today, Palumbo has just a single counselor and only a three-day-per-week nurse, same as five years ago.
There's just one secretary at the school—that's one less than five years ago.
And now, Palumbo has no assistant principal, no librarian, next to nothing for extracurricular activities, a dramatically reduced budget for supplies ... the list goes on.
Add it all up, and what you get is not nearly enough to provide Palumbo students with the basic supports they deserve, such as algebra tutoring, or friendly advice, or medical care, or college guidance, or the assurance of a safe passage home.
"What I do have is a wonderful team of teachers that act in those capacities," said Principal Chew, determined to put a positive spin on the situation, no matter how many different ways I asked about the systematic evisceration of her school.
That optimism persists even after the district's governing School Reform Commission last week forced Chew and her fellow principals to swallow a roughly 15 percent pay cut or face having new contract terms unilaterally imposed upon them.
"Of course every school has a library"
Since I joined Education Week last summer, it's been challenging for me to watch the slow-motion train wreck that is public education in my city.
More money alone isn't going to fix the Philadelphia district's problems, and no one should be arguing for a return to what amounted to business-as-usual five (or 10, or 20) years ago.
But the current situation is untenable, and it should be unacceptable.
Except for even in my own sadness and anger and outrage, I periodically realize that I too have begun to normalize the totally abnormal conditions in Philadelphia schools.
Last week, for example, I was covering a national conference, and an education official from Texas made an offhand remark. "Of course every school has a library," he said.
I winced, wondering anew how I, too, have become complicit in allowing my city's school system to devolve to the point where only two of its high schools have certified librarians—both of whom are being paid this year by an anonymous donor.
Academy at Palumbo?
The school's library is shuttered. When Palumbo lost its librarian, it lost its library, too.
Superintendent Hite is trying to rewrite Philadelphia's epic tome of loss and deprivation, investing money he doesn't have in efforts to expand the number of innovative high schools in the city. But the superintendent, too, has been presented with a series of impossible choices.
Borrow the money that has been allotted to today's kids in order to make a down payment on the future?
Or forget about tomorrow in order to make sure the 131,000 students in the district at least have something right now?
As if the future and the present were mutually exclusive.
Leaving Something Behind
Perhaps the saddest reality of all is the lack of fight: Too many in the city now seem resigned to wait a year or more in the hope that a new governor or a new mayor might muster the will to eliminate what officials describe as a $300 million annual structural deficit.
Fortunately, the students at Academy at Palumbo suffer from no such lack of urgency.
As Tuesday's celebration wound down, the members of the prize-winning Palumbo team gathered in a small room to tell their story to reporters from Education Week and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
It turns out that last summer, on top of all the budget cuts and school closings and labor strife that gripped Philly schools, dozens of laptops were stolen from their building.
For months, no one could find the money to replace the missing computers—including senior district officials who apparently declined last fall to follow Superintendent Hite's example and take 10 percent pay cuts, as promised.
Rather than throw their hands up in despair, the Palumbo teens decided to go out and win a prestigious national competition, beating out more than 2,300 competitors from across the country in the process. In doing so, they succeeded where so many of Philadelphia's adults have failed, bringing a much-needed influx of new resources into their school.
"Seeing a lot of what we had here go away was depressing," said senior Steven Geiger. "It feels good to be able to leave something behind for the students who are younger than us."
If only those who are responsible for the mess that is public education in my adopted hometown were so resourceful and committed.
Photo of an unfurnished administrator's office on the first day of school this year at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, by Jessica Kourkounis for Education Week.