Would-be teacher asks: should I give up on Philly?

     I met Tazhe Cooper in 2009, when he was the Philadelphia School District’s Senior of the Year, about to graduate from Furness High.  He was awarded one of the district’s “Grow Your Own” scholarships, given to graduating seniors who plan to pursue education careers, who pledged to make a three-year commitment to Philadelphia schools once they qualified as teachers.  He had been interested in a career in education since he was a young; it seemed like a great fit.

     Tazhe e-mailed me recently to say that he’s been watching the district closely, and he’s changed his mind about wanting to work there.  “It saddens my heart that I don’t want to teach in Philadelphia,” he said.  He elaborated in a phone conversation.  He’s been really rattled by the district’s money problems – it has already cut more than $600 million from its 2011-12 budget, and still must slash $26 million by June.  On top of that, it’s facing a $186 million shortfall for next school year.  Hundreds of teachers were laid off last year, though many were ultimately called back.

     “I often hear student teachers saying, ‘Philly is a mess.  We don’t want to go there.  We don’t want our jobs on the line every year,” said Tazhe.  “I don’t want to give up on the district, but I’m thinking about another city.  Maybe Chicago.”  I reminded Tazhe that urban public schools around the country are in tough spots.  Still, he said, he’s lost faith in his hometown system.  “Everything’s falling apart – bigger class sizes?  Cutting nurses? When I left, it was in OK shape, but then, everything fell apart with the money, and now they’re closing schools.  It’s really scary,” he said.

     When Tazhe graduated – 2009 – the district was flush with cash.  It had been the recipient of federal stimulus money, plus Gov. Rendell was still in office, and that meant a historic high mark for state aid for Philadelphia.  But the current School Reform Commission leader, Pedro Ramos, indicated this week that though the district was spending lots in those years, it should have been more prudent.  “Bad fiscal management” is what Ramos told city Council.  And as for school closings, while those are happening now – the SRC voted to close eight schools last week – it’s clear that’s something that should have happened a long time ago.  The district has delayed closing schools for years, and now must play catchup.

     Still, Tazhe feels disillusioned, cheated.  And he’s someone you want coming back to the district.  In his education classes at West Chester, “I’m the only black guy.  I’m the only one from the inner city.  I bring something to the table, with my inner city experience,” he said.  Tazhe knows he made a commitment, and says he will honor the terms of his scholarship, but then he plans to leave – for another district, or maybe even for another career.

     I keep thinking back to that conversation with Tazhe. 

     Even with all the problems in Philadelphia public schools, there are still amazing things going on every day – adults who make a difference, students who make a difference, who will make the world a better place.  I know there are plenty of people who think Tazhe’s thinking is right – that the district is to be avoided.  But I know there are also plenty who think he’s wrong.  So I’d love to collect comments – please be polite, regardless of your views! – to send to Tazhe.  What advice would you give him – give up on the district, or not? E-mail (kgraham@phillynews.com) or comment, and I'll share them with Tazhe and follow up here on the blog.