Commentary: We can fix Philly schools if we learn our lessons

Sylvia Simms, with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., is nearing the end of her term on the School Reform Commission.

It's been a privilege to serve on the School Reform Commission for the last four years, on behalf of children and families from all across the city. And it's reinforced for me some important lessons about the problems that confront our children. As my term ends, here are some of the lessons I've learned.

Lesson One: The biggest problem we face is that, when it comes to public schools, we're too often focused on the needs of adults instead of children. We spend far too much time and energy worrying about what the adults in the system want, especially when it comes to the battle over empowering children and families to choose schools.

Let's be clear: We absolutely should care about how we treat teachers and all of the adults who work so hard on behalf of our children every day. But when it comes to the future of our schools, we need to start and finish every conversation with what's best for our children, and in the process, stop intimidating families who may choose charter schools or other alternatives. In fact, in many cases, the people who are most critical have been able to make better choices for their own children.

Lesson Two: To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, there's nothing wrong with our schools that we can't fix with what's right about our schools. Let me put it plainly:

It's time to stop blaming everyone else - Harrisburg, Washington, our wealthier suburban neighbors - for the problems we face in Philadelphia. Instead of looking to blame others, let's take responsibility for getting our own house in order.

There's no question that our schools need additional funding from the state. But let's start by making better decisions about how we spend the money we already receive, so that all children have a real shot at a quality education. We devote considerable resources to magnet schools and the better neighborhood schools in Center City, for example. Yet when it comes to poor children and families, we usually justify making decisions that leave their schools at the back of the line.

What's worse, we then blame families who flee the public school system that has refused to provide equal access to the best schools. Here's just one example:

In 2015, the SRC authorized Mastery Schools to take over the struggling Wister Elementary School and opponents - most of whom had never stepped foot inside Wister - launched a series of bitter public attacks aimed at preserving the status quo. Today, despite these attacks, enrollment at Wister has increased. Why? Because when parents are faced with choosing a failing school or opting for something better, they vote with their feet and choose an option that offers the best future for their children.

I'm not knocking magnet schools or great neighborhood schools; on the contrary, I support them. But why limit access to great public schools based on income or geography?

Until children in every neighborhood - especially children living in poverty - have a chance at a great education, shouldn't we do everything we can to give those children a chance? After all, for many of those families and children with a future on the line, right now is the only chance they get at a great education.

Lesson Three: Most importantly, families need to continue doing their part. It's hard, I know. In a lot of ways, the system feels set up to keep parents down and out. But with each passing year, I see more and more family members choosing to get involved, becoming educated about the problems of our schools, and demanding better options for their children. I always tried to hear their demands and represent their interests at the SRC. And as I leave, I urge you to continue the fight to make yourselves heard.

We have the ability to fix our schools, but we're running out of time. Children and families in poverty can't wait any longer. It's time we all learned our lessons.

Sylvia P. Simms completed a four-year term as a member of the School Reform Commission on Jan. 13. spsimms1@gmail.com