All schools have problems

Not every Philly public school is the same. The response at Bache-Martin is proving that.

WHEN MY daughter entered kindergarten in a Philadelphia public school, my husband and I knew by the end of the first week that there was trouble with a teacher. Over the next month, it got worse - so much worse that we got ready to pull our kid out of the school.

I was filled with remorse, imagining the "I told you so" conversations I'd have with friends who'd advised us against using the city's public-education system. They'd chosen private school for their children or had moved to the suburbs to avoid just the kind of nonsense my husband and I had stupidly subjected our kid to.

Not expecting any real help, we took our worries to the school counselor. Appalled by what we told her, she marched us to the principal's office.

"You have to hear what's been going on," she told the principal.

The principal listened, assured us we weren't nuts, verified our allegations and then took appropriate action to resolve the problem. Our kid wound up staying in the city's public schools (she graduates next month) and has received a wonderful education.

Was every year perfect? Of course not. Problems arise in the course of every child's education. The question is: What does a school - that is, the leaders, staff and parents, individually or collectively - do about those problems? Do they ignore or deny them? Or do they recognize, address and work through them?

A good school does the latter. Which brings me to Bache-Martin school in Fairmount, where for months parents had complained to the principal about an untenable academic and disciplinary situation. When nothing was done, they called the Daily News.

Coincidentally or not, the principal announced her departure the day before our stories ran. Parents and teachers I spoke with are glad, as they felt Bache was overdue for new leadership.

Now a cynic might say that the parents never should have had to go to the media in the first place. Therefore, Bache must be a school in trouble.

I don't see it that way. I see Bache as a school whose parents are so committed to resolving problems that they will do what they must to fix them.

That's not a school in trouble. That's a school whose parents know when and how to step up.

Ideally, every school should have strong leaders, staff and parents. Also ideally, if one of those groups becomes weak, the stronger ones will exercise the courage to point it out, demand accountability and push harder if nothing changes. The checks and balances keep the school strong, especially if all sides are willing to communicate clearly, admit mistakes and ask for help when they're in over their heads.

It's not easy. And Philadelphia public schools have many challenges - shrunken resources, frustrating politics, families in flux - that make the checking and balancing harder than some leaders, staffers and parents care to endure.

Hence the rush to private schools, charters and suburbs.

But not every Philly public school is the same. Nor is every school frozen in amber, its dynamics incapable of change.

A struggling school can turn around when there's a new leader in the principal's office. Exhausted teachers can become energized when a new group of parents volunteer in the classroom. Worried parents can recommit to their kids' education when dedicated staffers take the time to hear them out.

Each group can inspire - or, sometimes, force - the other to be better. Schools, in that way, are living things, capable of growth and change.

Over the last decade, Bache, in gentrified Fairmount, has seen an influx of neighborhood families determined to do the hard work of making their local school work. As one dad tells it, Bache has become a viable option for their kids.

"The school is like a player on a one-year contract that has to prove himself over and over and over," says the dad, who asks not to be identified. "And as the parents get more involved, and pay their taxes, they're not going to stomach" the kind of nonsense that was reported last week.

Instead of leaving the neighborhood or the school, the Bache parents are staying put and demanding better. That kind of energy is contagious.

It's the kind that makes principals go toe-to-toe with school district bean counters over lack of money, which in turn builds everyone's confidence in the principal.

It makes teachers stand up for better treatment for themselves and their students, which makes parents want to help them make magic happen in the classroom.

It burnishes the school "brand," as the Bache dad pointed out, attracting great leaders and staff and inspiring families to join the team.

That's not a broken school.

It's a good one.



Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly