"Can I take a minute to talk to you about why Philadelphia public schools are the right choice for your family?”
On a mild night in early October I found myself repeating this phrase over and over again. I felt like one of those irritating clipboard-holding, sidewalk-blocking cause-heads who people hurry by on their lunch break.
I was at a “mixer” for local schools and parents of children about to start kindergarten. Held in the wealthy neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, the event targeted affluent families who had decided to stay in the city to raise and educate their children. A small group of ethnically-diverse young parents clad in Patagonia and J.Crew had shown up intending to be wooed by private schools that offer Mandarin classes, robotics, and global entrepreneurial immersion programs. I don’t think they expected to hear from me, a parent representative from a public school whose only un-guaranteed promise is that we have enough money in our operating budget to ensure we won’t run out of toilet paper by the end of May again this year.
Despite the pleasant language about discovering educational options, this was a recruiting event. Every school wanted a first crack at parents willing to pony up buckets of money for the best education for their kids.
I was there for the same reason, only my job was to convince parents that the best education their kids can receive should start with a lesson about not spending over $26,000 on name-brand kindergarten. My job was to reassure parents that the public schools in neighborhoods like the one we were standing in were safe, offered a solid educational foundation, and that what’s best for their children is not necessarily a Mandarin robotics class comprised of the children of one percenters, but an economically- and ethnically-diverse school where any and all resources that can be mustered end up benefiting an entire community as opposed to an individual child.
Most of the parents at the mixer came by to listen to my spiel. They were polite and supportive in the way people are when they get corralled into a conversation with one of those clip-board holders on the sidewalk talking about endangered whales or Bernie Sanders. But ultimately, all the politeness and support gave way to their desire to go learn about global entrepreneurship and robots.
I wasn’t surprised. But what troubles me, what keeps me showing up at events like this, is that their kids’ future, my kids’ future, the future of our city, and ultimately, the future of our great nation depend on their choice.
Four years ago, as my son approached kindergarten age, the one piece of parenting advice we heard from virtually all of the middle-class white Philadelphians we knew was, “You can’t send your kid to the public schools.” It was a sentiment corroborated by headlines about state budget cuts, potential teacher layoffs, a massive firing of support staff and violence in high schools. Nothing we heard or read instilled the slightest bit of confidence in public education in the city we loved.
Those headlines weren’t lying. Philadelphia is America’s poorest big city, and many of its neighborhoods are economically-parched badlands struggling with all the problems born of joblessness and poverty. The public schools in those neighborhoods try hard but cannot help but be anything other than a reflection of the challenges faced by their surroundings. And considering that budget cuts hit every public school in the city, it’s easy to assume they’re all a mess.
It was a neighbor down the street who approached us about coming to the public school in our neighborhood of Roxborough. Cheryl was the head of the Home and School Association, and her three older children served as excellent advertisements for the Philly public schools. Cheryl plied us with wine as she told us about the supportive culture the school community had cultivated in the face of relentless economic uncertainty. As a Mary Kay salesperson Cheryl understood the value of a reassuring word and the power of free wine. It is a testament to Cheryl’s salesmanship that four years later, not only do we send both of our children to the neighborhood public school, but I am now the vice president of the Home and School Association.
If I’m being totally honest it helped that Cheryl’s family looked like my family. Having a middle-class white person hold our hand, get us drunk, and tell us it was going to be okay probably meant more to us than it should have.
The biggest challenge public school recruitment faces in Philadelphia is abandonment by young, often white and middle-class families who either choose private and charter schools or leave the city altogether. At one point in the not too distant past my neighborhood was predominantly white, blue collar and Catholic, and teeming with families and kids. Now Roxborough remains mostly white, although our school’s zone includes the historically black section of the neighborhood that dates to the late 1800s, one reason the school maintains a roughly 50-50 ratio between white students and students of color.
Roxborough still has a distinctly blue collar feel, but the neighborhood has largely been filled with college students and post-graduate 20- and 30-somethings who rented homes and apartments here during college then bought their “first houses” in the neighborhood after graduation. What was once an insular multi-generational community currently finds itself with a large transient population. Young people come for school, stay a couple years, and then many leave when they’re ready to start families.
It’s a familiar story across urban America. As factories started closing in the 60s and 70s and the drug wars and a weak economy wreaked havoc in the 80s and 90s, people left Philly en masse. But starting in the mid 2000s, the city saw an increase in population spurred by immigration, and more surprisingly, young adults.
According to a study released by the Pew Charitable Trust in 2014 no other American city attracted more millennials between 2006 and 2012 than Philadelphia. With new pop-up beer gardens, outdoor music festivals, shopping and food meccas built in once desolate areas, Philadelphia became the poor man’s San Francisco, Brooklyn’s broker and slightly sketchier little brother.
However, according to the same Pew study, as many as half of those millennial transplants don’t see putting down roots and raising a family in the City of Brotherly Love. Anecdotally speaking, I feel like that projection is overly optimistic.
The elementary school my kids were originally zoned for was closed in 2012 along with 23 other neighborhood schools because there weren’t enough kids left to fill the seats. Many families with school-aged children moved and those who remained were not choosing district schools. In the three block radius surrounding my row home, I can count the number of families left with school-aged kids on both hands, and I can count those families who send their kids to the neighborhood public school on one hand.
Because for all the pop-up beer gardens that appeared over the last several years no one addressed the biggest issue driving young people from Philadelphia, the schools. As the quality of life for 20-somethings dramatically improved over the last decade, the stability of the public schools dramatically declined. As the members of that shiny young creative class that Philadelphia is so proud of attracting begins to have children one of the first things they do is plan their escape from the city and its crumbling schools. Their departure only exacerbates problems for schools, removing valuable resources and tax dollars and helping to create a system divided by haves and have nots.
In journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work in Pro Publica and on This American Life, she describes the quiet resegregation of the American school system and the resulting apartheid schools where economically disadvantaged minority students make up at least 99% of the student body. The number of black and Hispanic students attending completely segregated schools has increased by nearly 1 million since 1993.
There are many schools that might qualify as apartheid schools in Philadelphia; they would make the school my children attend look relatively well-integrated. But it’s really not. Because while my children’s school, Cook-Wissahickon, is well-integrated ethnically, there is a lopsided socio-economic dynamic. Eighty-two percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, but while our neighborhood isn’t wealthy (according to City-Data, the median household income is $10,000 higher than the state's median household income) the neighborhood certainly isn’t struggling in the way that 82% implies. It’s just that most of those middle-class families won’t send their kids to the neighborhood public school.
In my recruiting experience, economics, more than ethnicity, seems to be the engine driving people away from neighborhood schools. However, it would be dishonest to claim that race and class are easily separated in the minds of many Americans. Hannah-Jones’ reporting from Normandy, Missouri, also shows how unambiguously black and white the issue is in many areas of the country. But at least in my neighborhood, it seems that as long as everyone is making the same money, on the surface at least, nobody really cares what color you are. When you throw poverty into the equation, it complicates everything for many parents.
Cook-Wissahickon’s first year principal, Mike Lowe, believes that one of the only ways to combat the crisis in Philadelphia schools is to attract more middle-class and wealthy families. “If every family in our catchment sent their kids here, including the ones with resources, we would have a much louder voice politically. People with money, access, and political power need to be in the same room with their neighbors without,” he told me. “That’s the promise of neighborhood public education; bringing everyone’s children together in the same room and teaching them equally.”
However, Lowe faces an uphill battle. Competition is fierce for those middle-class and wealthy families, and public schools compete at a disadvantage. Materially speaking public schools can’t offer the programs and facilities that private schools and well-funded charters can.
The charter on the other side of my neighborhood has a new $13.5 million state-of-the-art-building and “learning pond” on their campus. My children’s school has a drain in the playground that backs up and floods the basketball courts every time it rains.
Even well-funded public schools in wealthy neighborhoods can’t compete. John Story Jenks, a school located in posh Chestnut Hill, has a wooden park in the shape of a giant sprawling castle complete with super-cool spires and hidey holes. It was donated by local businesses and wealthy neighborhood sponsor families, few of whom send their kids to this school.
Haviva Goldman is a public school evangelist for JS Jenks. Like me, she tries to sell her neighbors on the idea of sending their kids to the public school. But “almost no one within walking distance will give us the time of day,” she told me. “This has always been considered the school where the working class from the neighborhood sent their kids. I think sometimes stigma lingers.”
Does the fact that the school is 76% black in a predominantly white neighborhood play a factor? “I don’t know about that,” Goldman said. “We have just as much trouble recruiting middle-class and wealthy African-American families as we do recruiting middle-class and wealthy white families. It’s just hard to get people with money to come here.”
Race is more clearly a factor one neighborhood over in Mt. Airy, an area recognized as one of the first successfully integrated neighborhoods in America. It’s a place where black and white, gay and straight, wealthy and middle class live and shop together at the local co-op. However that sense of diversity and liberal idealism seems to stop just short of entering the finely-appointed hallways of the Henry Houston School.
One autumn day when I visit, between the afternoon light, the 1920s Art Deco design, and the golden orange oak tree out front, the school looks an old Saturday Evening Post cover. While my children’s 1960s public school evokes a prison vibe, Henry Houston looks like it’s been preserved in amber since it was built almost a century ago, all hardwood floors, wainscoting, and arched muntin windows.
The student body is 86.6% African American, 3.4% White, 2.1% Latino, .8% Asian, and 7.1% other, with 91.7% considered economically disadvantaged. This is not exactly an adequate representation of the integration that Mt. Airy is famous for. “We have many students who don’t have a single college graduate in their family,” Principal LeRoy Hall told me.
Hall has implemented a program in which his students start learning about college in 6th grade. By 8th grade they will have researched several universities and visited Washington, D.C., for campus tours of both Georgetown and Howard University.
This sounds great, but I’m struggling because it contrasts so starkly with the Mt. Airy outside these doors. That Mt. Airy is filled with academics from Penn, Drexel, and Temple, plus Comcast executives, lawyers and doctors. Where are they? More importantly, where are their kids?
I don’t want to sound cruel but I tell Hall that there are people just outside his office window driving Subaru wagons with peeling Si Se Puede bumper stickers who are literally paying $26,000 dollars a year not to send their children to his school. Hall knows all too well that his school’s demographics don’t match the neighborhood’s. But he said that “when people see that we are working together toward something great, they’ll want to come here.”
Hall leads me around to the back of the school and proudly reveals the playground: a slightly smaller, slightly less awe-inspiring version of the wooden castle found at JS Jenks. He tells me how the money, materials, and construction were donated by local businesses and families for the students to share with neighbors who don’t attend the school.
I ask him if he would rather have this playground or have the chance to educate the children of the families who donated it. He looks at me and I think I see a flicker of sadness slip across his face. Then he breaks into a big smile. “Look man, if someone wants to donate $26,000 to my school and not send their kid here, I’m not gonna say no.”
And then the smile fades, and his voice gets quieter, more serious. “But yeah, at some point people need to step up. They need to be present here. They need to acknowledge this is a good, safe school. They need to trust us with their kids.”
I can’t help but wonder: If we can’t get economic and ethnic integration right in stable, economically-healthy and well-integrated neighborhoods with high-flying liberal ideals like Mt. Airy, then how do we even begin to deal with the schools and students that have been completely left behind?
The hardest thing about the school conversation is that most parents aren’t thinking about race and class when they choose a school, everyone just wants to do what is best for their kid. But why do so many parents assume that what is best for their kid exists in a bubble that is too often separated by race and class? Why have we decided that what’s best for our kids is divorced from what’s best for the communities and larger cities they grow up in? To the point where we abandon our communities, or remove our children to exclusive schools outside our neighborhoods, in effect isolating them from kids who would naturally be a part of their world.
When it comes to elementary education, do you really need bells and whistles like learning ponds? Can’t your child take Mandarin classes after school? When does a robotics course become just another excuse?
I understand that some families choose private school because their kids thrive in small classrooms; others firmly believe in religious education; and sometimes schools just don’t work out for individual students. But those should be the exceptions not the rule.
Everyone says the right things about the choices they make when it comes to schools, but to not acknowledge the fact that those choices have created a world in which schools are one of the last socially acceptable excuses for white flight and racial and economic segregation, is to not be completely honest.
As a public school parent the thing that is most unbearable to me is not the uncertainty surrounding what kind of money the district will have for the year and what that means for our school. We’ll fight for all we can, and at our school we’re lucky to have families that can help make up some of the difference. And like always, we’ll do more even if we have less. What’s unbearable is the complete sense of abandonment by people who say the right things and fail in the words of Hall “to show up.”
It’s easy to rage at politicians for budget cuts and failing to lead on this complicated issue. What’s less easy to admit is that if more parents with political power, economic resources and sun-bleached Si Se Puede bumper stickers hadn’t chosen zip codes outside the city or $26,000 private school tuitions over educating their kids with their less privileged neighbors, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
When I’m selling a prospective parent on public school, I try not to let them see how angry I am. But I do want the young parents I speak with to understand the great hypocrisy demonstrated by the last several generations of wealthy and middle-class liberal parents. They learned how to say all the right things about the importance of diversity and integration, and then they completely failed to follow through with their actions. This generation of parents has the chance to start fixing the inequities in the system, and all they have to do is stay put and trust people like Principal Hall with their kids.
As for Hall, he has hope. This year’s kindergarten class has seen an increase in white students. “People always think of creating diversity as getting more black people involved in whatever white people are doing. But here we have the opposite issue, when we talk about creating diversity, we’re talking about including more white people in our thing,” he said.
As school was letting out the other day, he said, one of the new white fathers walked by holding his kindergartener’s hand. “He doesn’t stop to talk, but he’s got this big smile on his face, and he has his hand out to shake mine,” Hall said. “He shakes my hand and says, ‘We are really liking this. This is awesome.’ That’s literally all he said as he kept walking. That’s a good start.”
Aaron Traister is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.