In first public duties, new Philly school board gets an earful from community

New Philadelphia school board member Maria McColgan (facing camera) listens as she participates in a small group session aimed at improving education for Philadelphia students.

Add more art and music to schools. Better equip teachers to handle the challenges of children who live in deep poverty. Earn the public’s trust and improve community relations. Make sure kids have mentors, and job training, and access to robust after-school programs.

Members of the new Philadelphia school board got an earful from the public Wednesday night on the first stop of that body’s citywide listening tour.

“This is part of their orientation, in a way, a way to hear from the people in the public about the issues that are most important to them,” Otis Hackney, Mayor Kenney’s chief education officer, told about 100 people who gathered in the auditorium at Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia.

Four members of the new board attended Wednesday’s session: Maria McColgan, Angela McIver, Wayne Walker, and Joyce Wilkerson. Board members have been sworn in, but they won’t begin governing the school system — which has 205,000 students in traditional public schools and charters — until July 1, succeeding the state-run School Reform Commission.

The task in front of them is enormous. Currently, just 33 percent of students in the district can read at grade level, and only 19 percent meet state standards in math. Mike Seidenberg, a South Philadelphia parent who homeschools one daughter and is about to send another to Central High, summed up his concerns for the new board.

“We just keep doing the same stuff, and it’s not working,” said Seidenberg. “I don’t know how much of this falls on the school board or the mayor or the city, but something completely different has to be done. I hope that the board or whoever is creative enough, is courageous enough to really take a different direction.”

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
The Philadelphia school board meets the public for the first time as it opens its citywide listening tour.  Rasheeda Hancock (center) has a suggestion as school board member Joyce Wilkerson (wearing glasses) listens.

The board must confront a public that is historically wary of the district and the people who run it.

Anna Figueroa, a grandparent concerned about the quality of education available to kids in struggling neighborhoods, said she was paying close attention to what comes next. Figueroa works for Educational Opportunities for Families, a charter-advocacy group.

“The district is failing the children in our community,” said Figueroa, whose children graduated from district schools. Her grandchildren attended them, but now go to charters. She said the board may say it means business, but she wonders.

“Right now, I think you don’t care about us,” she said.

Attendees included current Dobbins students, teachers, retired educators, other community members, and people hoping to sell products to the district.

And there were such people as Syreeta Campbell, who has a 4-year-old starting kindergarten in the fall. She lives in North Philadelphia and would never send her child to a public school unless things inside the district improve dramatically, she said. Instead, Campbell pays for private school, an option that many families don’t have.

What does she want the board to know?

“I think our public schools should be viable options, and a lot of them aren’t,” said Campbell. “We need a new model, because what we have is outdated, obsolete, and it doesn’t work.”

Kim Leake lives in Mount Airy and has a daughter at F.S. Edmonds, a district school. Leake, a former employee at the now-closed Germantown High School and also at Martin Luther King High, wanted to impress upon the board members the need for more mental-health and behavioral supports inside city schools.

“The classrooms are off the hook,” Leake said. “The teachers spend more time disciplining the students than teaching.”

The board members said that they were taking careful notes, and that they knew the job ahead was enormous. They urged the people in attendance to be their partners going forward.

“There are a lot of people  — just look at the turnout here  — that want to make a difference,” said McColgan. “I heard a lot of hope. I’m really excited about that.”