How we decided to clean up the hazards in our school | Commentary

Natalie Catin-St. Louis (l) and Gretchen Dahlkemper

In January, Philadelphia School District officials informed us that our school, George W. Nebinger Elementary, had an issue with flaking lead paint in our hallways, classrooms, and offices. At an elementary school, that posed great concern to us, and as you can imagine, it led to a very vocal and public outcry by our parents and community.

From there, we had two choices. We could complain, or we could be part of the solution.

As an environmental consultant and a principal, we asked the district to work with us on a plan for action to protect the health and safety of our students. What resulted was the creation of a working group made up of district officials, school-based staff, dedicated volunteers, and members of the Philadelphia Healthy Schools Coalition. In  a series of collaborative meetings,  we quickly realized that the lead stabilization plan, while clear on paper, would face challenges when implemented due to the unique needs of schools. We also figured that going through this process at Nebinger and Jackson Elementary Schools could give us ideas to formulate a plan that could be implemented district-wide.

With a small but unique catchment — containing both public housing and upper-middle class homes — our school, Nebinger Elementary in Queen Village, was uniquely situated to serve as a pilot project to provide feedback, critiques, and suggestions about the work plan. Our student population represents every corner of the city, and we knew that if we could get it right at Nebinger, we could make sure the lead stabilization program, and other environmental improvements, could become a reality across the district.

Over the course of more than five months we worked together with the district to analyze what was and wasn’t working. For example, we quickly realized that the schedule of work would need to be shared and adjusted on an almost weekly basis to accommodate for PSSA testing, field trips, open house dates, etc. So, rather than setting and sticking to the initial schedule of work, we developed a clear communication plan for the district’s operations team and school principal, to allow for flexibility in adjusting to the school’s needs.

Our collaborative approach allowed us to develop a comprehensive lead stabilization work plan that can be implemented at every school in the district while providing flexibility to adjust to each school’s unique needs.

During the pilot project, we were able to identify important considerations that we hope the district adds to the current program to help other schools during lead stabilization work. Most important, we are advocating that the schedule of work be determined by risk and need — not dictated by zip code or by the loudest voices. We recommend that the district’s environmental director work in partnership with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ environmental director to determine the order of work based not only upon scope determination reports, but that schools will be prioritized based upon both the scale of hazardous conditions and demographic data to ensure equity across the district.

What started as the all-too-common tale of angry parents demanding action by the district, fueled by reports of flaking lead paint, asbestos in the air, and lead in drinking water, became a collaborative and innovative approach to achieve the goal of healthy and safe learning environments for students not just at Nebinger and Jackson, but across the city’s public schools.

While volunteers were a key part of this process and are beneficial to this work, they alone simply cannot address the needs of our students and the buildings in which they learn without adequate funding. It is beyond time for our elected officials — in City Hall, Harrisburg, and Washington — to stop playing politics with our children’s health and education, and start fully investing into our children and our schools.

Our children need everyone elected to represent them to fight for adequate funding to fix our aging and crumbling school infrastructure so that our students have the buildings they deserve. We need families and community members to join us in this effort and call on our public officials to advocate for fair and full funding for our schools.

Natalie Catin-St. Louis is the principal at George W. Nebinger Elementary School;   Gretchen Dahlkemper is a Nebinger parent and environmental consultant.