Archives for category: Philadelphia

Helen Gym, the articulate and tireless parent advocate for Philadelphia public schools, is running for City Council.

Here is a 30-second video of Helen.

She has already been endorsed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Here is the speech she delivered at 5 pm today.

Helen Gym: Campaign Announcement
February 9, 2015

I stand here filled with gratitude to see so many of you here. I have given a lot of speeches over the years but it is a lot easier to give a speech about an injustice that must be fought, or students who need to be supported than it is to talk about… myself. But standing here, seeing so many friends and so many people that I respect, calms my nerves a little a bit, and makes me realize how lucky I am, and how lucky we all are, to live in a city with communities like this one.

Although I have lived here for almost thirty years, I wasn’t born in Philadelphia. I grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Korean immigrants. We didn’t have much, but I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that had public parks where I could play, a public library where I could read, a public rec center where I could swim, and most importantly, public schools where I got a great education. That education formed me, like it formed so many of you. It unlocked the possibilities of the world. It was a social contract, and it influenced how I think about the possibilities, not just the limitations, of government throughout my life.

I moved to Philadelphia for college, met and married a wonderful man, and immersed myself in this city. I taught at Lowell Elementary School in Olney. I joined amazing organizations in this city – like Asian Americans United. I became a mother and started raising my three children in this city, and I worked alongside so many amazing mothers and fathers dedicated to re-envisioning our public schools.

I helped found the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, to raise up their voices as well as those of teachers, school staff and students. I helped found a school that breathed life into culture and practices that value multilingualism, community and served many immigrant families. I founded Parents United for Public Education with parents like LeRoi, Gerald, Robin, Tomika and Rebecca. Together we’re rejecting a punishing narrative of blame and failure – and we’re making sure the mentality around our children and our schools comes through a framework of human dignity, justice and love for our children and those who care for them.

Over the years, together we have fought to make this city—our city— a better place to live. We might not have been in the halls of power, but we organized, we fought, and we achieved real, tangible victories.

We refused to let the School District operate behind closed doors, as it outsourced the decision to close our public schools. Just last week, we finally shone a light on what schools were originally slated to close. And one glance at that list made it ever more clear—as if we didn’t know before—just how dangerous it is to hand over the governance of a public institution to a small group of out-of-touch, out-of-town consultants, paid for by undisclosed millionaires.

We stood up for neighborhoods like Chinatown, fighting tooth and nail to keep stadiums and casinos out of one our most vibrant, yet threatened, immigrant neighborhoods.

We stood up to patronage at the Parking Authority, and as a result, we—the citizens of Philadelphia—made the Parking Authority pay their fair share and deliver millions of desperately needed dollars every year to the School District. Why? Because we refused to accept the status quo. We refused to accept that that was just the way things were. We refused to allow cynicism to rob children of their right to decent funding.

And when the SRC tried to put two neighborhood schools into the hands of private operators, over the objections of the parents and teachers of those schools, we stood with them, we demanded their voices be heard. And together we won.

And so, I come back to where I started, and why I am so energized to see you all here. Those victories were not my victories. They were the victories of powerful, passionate and vibrant communities, of this community. This is our moment. I believe it. This is our moment to bring a new, community-based agenda to inhabit City Hall. And so, it is with humility —and with excitement!—that in front of you all, in front of my community, that I announce my campaign for City Council at Large.

You know, people sometimes ask me if I am angry. You know what? I am. Aren’t you? We live in a city with a crippling rate of poverty. We live in a city where teachers – teachers! – are being demonized and scapegoated by those who purposefully seek to underfund and in some cases dismantle our public school system. When we know that schools which succeed depend on the partnership of dedicated professionals, how does it make sense to start a war by firing on your own soldiers? We live in a city where a child died of asthma—asthma—in a city school where no nurse was on duty, and where college applications plummeted among our most vulnerable students because we laid off school counselors. We live in a city where we incarcerate at rates that shock the senses, where family lives are destroyed, families torn apart, and young lives upended by a school to prison pipeline that is as toxic as it is immoral. As the saying goes, if you are not angry—if you are not outraged—you are not paying attention.

But, I am hopeful, too. I am hopeful because I know that we can make this city a better place to live for all of us, whether you have lived here all your life, or whether you moved here recently, and like me, fell in love with this wonderful place and have put down your roots.

And, there is reason for hope, because as our communities have pushed, there have been real victories that have demonstrated what happens when we fight—paid sick leave will finally become a reality; business taxes have become more progressive; the Land Bank was created to put vacant land back to productive use; sensible criminal justice policies have stopped the jailing of our citizens for minor marijuana possession. We’ve finally stopped police from being used as immigration enforcers; and, a 21st century minimum wage was delivered to city contractors and, for the first time, subcontractors.

And, on top of all of that, after decades of loss, our City is growing. The cyclists riding to work each morning and night, whether they are the most recent generation of immigrants to settle in South Philadelphia, or entrepreneurs creating a tech boom on North Third Street, are daily reminders that this is a place where people want to live

But this city can do more. So much more. And it is time for all of us to unite and to escalate our fight.

Fight to make the lives of working Philadelphians better by raising wages and benefits, and improving working conditions.

Fight to get the vacant land of Philadelphia working, by ensuring that the Land Bank has power, is supported, and spurs development in our communities while ensuring sensible, transparent land policies and supporting uses like community gardens.

Fight for our parks, from the Wissahickon to Wissinoming, and our rec centers, from Susquehannah to Snyder and Cottman to Cobbs Creek.

Fight for community-based policing that respects and listens to communities.

Fight for economic policies that encourage small businesses and entrepreneurs, create a skilled workforce, and make sure that everyone pays their fair share.

Fight for a walkable city that protects pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Fight for transparency, so that the days of buying access and doing business behind closed doors finally come to a close.

Fight for our immigrant communities, to end abusive deportation practices and to ensure that English proficiency is not a requisite for a responsive government.

Fight for those policies that we all understand our city should have. And when someone tells us it cannot be done, to ask why, to organize, and to demand better.

And… to fight for our public schools. You know, if there is one good thing that we have seen from the chaos that Tom Corbett and the SRC rained upon our schools, it is this: our citizens have refused to be divided. They have refused the sick game of choosing between affordable health care for our teachers and books for our children.

Turn, after turn, after turn, Philadelphians have been told that those are the choices we have. We have refused. Instead, our students at schools from SLA to Constitution to Masterman walked out of school in defense of their teachers, we chased Tom Corbett out of Central High School, and last November voters sent Corbett home after one term.

But, oh let me tell you, do we need to fight for our public schools. Education is the battle ground on which we must stake our claim, for it is the clearest expression of the choice before us, between a society, on the one hand, that privileges the few and tolerates inequity and poverty, versus a vision of a beloved community that is far different.

A vision in which public education is a compact between all of us who believe in a just, civil society.

Public education binds generations, it invests families of all economic classes in the success of our city, and in each other.

So I will fight, as I have fought, as you have fought, to defend that most cherished institution, and the biggest symbol of our commitment to a just, equitable and prosperous society.

That is why I am running for City Council.

All that I have done, all that we have done, has been from standing together and demanding change. It is from the power of our communities. It comes from something very deep within us that demands a moral agenda to the deep moral crisis plaguing our city and our nation.

I cannot do this without you. I ask that you stand with me now, and stand with each other, to make this place a city that are we proud to call home, and proud to hand to our children.

Thank you.

The pro-charter Philadelphia School Partnership has offered the School Reform Commission $35 million to expand the number of charters in the cash-strapped district.

“The one-time gift, to be given over three years, would consist of up to $25 million for charters and a separate $10 million offer to expand strong district schools.

“It is not clear is whether the School Reform Commission will approve any new charters or accept the stunning sum, which was offered late Wednesday, and came as news to many and proved immediately polarizing.

“Applications for 39 new charter schools now await an SRC vote, which could come as early as next week. District officials have said that approving more charters would mean taking money away from traditional public schools, and no new stand-alone charters have been approved for seven years….

“Behind closed doors, Gov. Wolf has said he wants the SRC to approve zero new charters because the district can’t afford them, sources have said, adding that both sides have threatened the SRC’s existence if things do not go their way.”

Parent activists for public schools are furious at the offer.

“Lisa Haver, cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, was aghast.

“PSP is a very influential in this school district, but it doesn’t look out for the best interests of all the students,” Haver said. “It’s shocking to see they have $35 million while schools are hanging by their fingernails to survive – schools that don’t have staff, full-time nurses and full-time librarians. And now, out of the blue, this nonprofit group says, ‘Guess what? We have $35 million.'”

“Haver, a retired district teacher, said the SRC “should reject their offer because one small group of people who are not elected officials and meet in private should not be making that decision based on how much money they have.”

It is curious that business and civic leaders remain starry-eyed about charters when there have been numerous charter scandals in Philadelphia. See here and here and here and here and here.

Philadelphia will hire at least 400 new teachers next fall to replace those who have retired or resigned. For years, the district has closed schools and laid off teachers.

The public schools have only 11 librarians,.

The civic group Parents United and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia have been fighting the School Reform Commission for access to secret documents created by the Boston Consulting Group as its “reform” plan for the Philadelphia public schools. The plan was shared with district officials and the foundation that paid for the report, but was not made public. The groups just won a victory and were able to review the report, see the list of schools that BCG wanted to close, and see how flawed BCG’s projections were. Of course, BCG wanted to privatize as much of the district’s schools and operations as possible.


BCG called for closing 88 District-managed schools, which would have displaced a conservative estimate of 22,000-31,000 students districtwide – more than triple the number of students displaced by the actual 2013 school closings. A five-year plan sought the removal and reassignment of up to 45,000 students, more than one-third of the District.


This information and more came to us after Parents United for Public Education and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia won a two-and-a-half-year battle to get BCG’s list of school closings. After losing three times in official proceedings, the District this month agreed to hand over BCG’s recommendations.


And more:


Parents United’s fight for this list wasn’t just about legal technicalities, although some interesting issues arose as a result. Our fight was about the importance of public transparency and dialogue on matters of grave importance to communities and taxpayers.


In 2012, the Boston Consulting Group came under intense criticism for a controversial plan that promoted school closings, massive charter expansion, and privatization of key functions within the District. Under its multimillion-dollar contract with the William Penn Foundation, BCG agreed to provide the foundation with a number of “contract deliverables,” one of which was identifying schools for closure.


In court proceedings regarding our case, the District sought to make a troubling, and fortunately unsuccessful, argument that “certain stakeholders and members of the philanthropic community” ought to have special access to information denied to the public – a move that we think is closely akin to pay-to-play.


We argued that large donors, such as former William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak, had special access to school-closing documents and to District officials. An Ethics Board investigation later found that Nowak did have private meetings with District officials and reviewed and commented on draft reports.


The District held that some “members of the philanthropic community” and undefined “stakeholders” get to have a different level of access than the rest of the public. This reveals a lot about decisionmaking and voice in a state-takeover district.


It should make a difference that some of the entities that helped contribute to the Boston Consulting Group plan had board members who were real estate developers and individuals with financial and political stakes in charter school operators. These were groups that pushed hard for school closures, which rocked the District in 2012-13, forcing 7,000 children to crowd into schools that today are worse off than the ones they had attended. A number of the properties were then fast-tracked for sale.


We know that mass school closings didn’t improve the District’s finances. They didn’t stop the loss of nearly 4,000 jobs just a few months later. They didn’t buy us any good will from the state legislature. And most important, they didn’t improve the academic opportunities for students in schools targeted for closure or for those in the rest of the District.






Philadelphia, PA January 26, 2015




Parents at Feltonville and across the district stand in support of teachers


Dissatisfied with how standardized testing is eclipsing their children’s education, 20% of parents at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences — with the support of teachers — have opted their children out of standardized testing. And that number is growing despite disciplinary actions taken last week against teachers involved in informing parents of their rights.


Teachers were issued letters compelling them to attend investigatory conferences on Thursday of this week. The district move follows this City Paper article announcing that 17% of students at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences refused to take the PSSAs and other assessments. News of the action prompted Council members María Quiñones-Sánchez, Mark Squilla and Jannie Blackwell to issue a public statement of support for Feltonville families on Thursday saying “Until we put some limits on this obsession with testing students, we will see protests like that at Feltonville. We stand with families who are making the choice they believe is best for their children.”


With the recent appointment of a new Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera, Council members Quinones-Sanchez, Squilla, and Blackwell called upon the School Reform Commission to formally request a waiver for this school year, and to begin a review of the long-term strategy to reform the use of standardized testing.


“We, as parents, have a right to say no to the test”, says Heidey Contrera, the mother of 8th grader Natalie Contrera, who, having moved to Philadelphia from the Dominican Republic in 2011, is designated an English Language Learner at Feltonville. “The test is not a good measure of my daughter’s ability. It is not a fair way to judge her. And we’re not taking it.”


“Parents have the right to opt out – that is an indisputable right,” said Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, one of the groups to come out publicly in support of parents and teachers at Feltonville. “The District has an opportunity to work with parents and teachers on an issue of common gain rather than once again being on the wrong side of the table.”


Amy Roat,, 215 768 8479, teacher, Caucus of Working Educators Steering Committee member, and Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences PFT Building Representative


Kelley Collings, , 215 868 3089, teacher, Caucus of Working Educators Steering Committee member, and Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences PFT Building Committee member


Thanks to reader GST for bringing this important story to our attention: a court in Pennsylvania ruled that the School Reform Commission may not cancel the contract of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. This is a battle that has gone on for two years, as the unelected School Reform Commission looks for ways to cut the budget. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia schools are suffering from former Governor Tom Corbett’s deep budget cuts, and the Legislature has refused to fulfill its responsibility to the children of Philadelphia.


Commonwealth Court judges have handed a win to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, ruling that the School Reform Commission cannot throw out the teachers’ union’s contract and impose new terms.


The decision was confirmed by Jerry Jordan, PFT president, on Thursday morning.


“This is a very big victory,” Jordan said.


After nearly two years of negotiations, the district had moved on Oct. 6 to cancel the teachers’ contract and impose health-benefits changes that would save the cash-strapped system $54 million annually, officials said.
In the decision, judges said that neither the state Public School Code nor the Legislature have expressly given the SRC the power to cancel its teachers’ contract.


“This Court is cognizant of the dire financial situation which the Districtcurrently faces and the SRC’s extensive efforts to achieve the overall goal of properlyand adequately meeting the educational needs of the students,” Judge Patricia A. McCullough wrote for the court. “There have been numerous difficult decisions that the SRC has been forced to make in an effort to overcome these economic hurdles, including a one-third reduction in staff and theclosing of 31 schools in recent years.”


But the law does not give the SRC the power to cancel a collective bargaining agreement.

Since 2011, the number of school nurses in the Philadelphia public schools has declined by 40%. At a meeting of the School Reform Commission, the appointed board that runs the district, nurses and principals testified about the dangers to children posed by the lack of nurses.

In 2013, a 12-year-old child died of an asthma attack at school; there was no nurse available that day.

In 2014, a 7-year-old child collapsed and died in school; there was no nurse available that day.

How many more children must die before the state supplies the funding to staff every school with a nurse every day?

This article from Bond Buyer is behind a paywall. The gist of it is in the headline and summary. The expansion of charters “is a credit negative” and causes districts to pay a higher rate for their bonds, thus leaving the district less money to support public schools. If anyone has a subscription, please send the rest of the article.


Moody’s: Charter School Expansion Credit Negative for LAUSD
NOV 3, 2014 10:05pm 
Charter school giant KIPP School’s announcement that it would more than double its Los Angeles enrolment by 2020 is a credit negative for Los Angeles Unified School District, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
To continue reading, log in, register or subscribe below.


Philadelphia was warned about its bond rating by Moody’s.



With San Antonio ISD anticipating school closures, Austin ISD enrollment down, how soon will Moody’s downrate their bond ratings?


Aside from directly sapping funds from public education, now we see another cost of charter schools to taxpayers.

Helen Gym, Philadelphia’s leading activist for public education, complains that the School Reform Commission wrongly canceled the teachers’ contract while failing to fight for funding from the state.

She writes:

“Recently, I visited my brother-in-law at Radnor High School and was privileged to see him teach his ninth-grade English/civics class. When I walked in, his students were engaged in a debate about Plato and the notion of dissent versus rule of law in Athenian society. The students had finished reading John Stuart Mill and were getting their first papers back for revision. It was October 2nd.

“A few days later, I attended a parent meeting at Central High School, one of the city’s premier institutions. Dozens of ninth graders had spent their school year with substitute teachers who changed every week. The substitutes were put in place to relieve teachers leading classrooms with 40, 50, or even more students. For these ninth graders, school didn’t really start until October 8th, when permanent teachers were finally assigned to them.

“This is what a teacher’s contract was supposed to prevent.

“And it’s why the School Reform Commission’s move last week to tear up that contract is about far more than the dishonest suggestion of “shared sacrifice” and health care contributions.

“In an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer last Sunday, SRC Chair Bill Green asked you to believe that the SRC made a necessary move to reverse devastating budget cuts from the last two years. It’s disappointing that some of his central facts are plain wrong (just read this Public School Notebook article on the inaccuracies by the SRC and District). It’s ironic that Green claims any measure of high ground, when the SRC ambushed its own staff and the public in a backdoor move meant to limit public dialogue.

“As a member of City Council, Bill Green was both vocal and active in helping us document the devastating impact of the state purposefully underfunding Philadelphia’s public schools. The District could have sued for full, fair funding. They chose not to. Instead they are in court suing to offset Harrisburg’s failures by taking money from the very people we depend on to care for our children and keep their schools open and safe – and grossly overstating the difference the money will make.”

Read the article for the links and more about the looting of the Philadelphia public schools.


Philadelphia Magazine invited the education activist Helen Gym and the leader of the School Reform Commission Bill Green to debate the condition of public education in that city, where public schools are in desperate financial shape.

A fascinating discussion and dynamic between the two. Most interesting to me was Green’s insistence that the state-controlled SRC was “democratic” and that having an elected board, as 95% of districts in America do, would be a very bad thing for Philadelphia. People would want counselors and nurses, and no one would be willing to pay for them. Unasked was why Philadelphia is shortchanged by the state, why the city should accept the status quo without fighting for the needed funding for nurses, counselors, librarians, reduced class sizes, the arts, and everything else that the students need.

Here is a brief excerpt:

HELEN: And I do appreciate the private talks, but they’re not in lieu of a public conversation and democratic processes. It’s not really what does Helen say to Bill, but it’s really about what are we trying to break open? What are we trying to understand? And what I’ve always appreciated about you was that I think you more than any other SRC chair have been extremely vocal about the level of inequity. The thing I think we’re struggling with is trying to capture different spaces and be in different spaces where we can hear one another and learn and listen.

BILL: I didn’t take what you said about the SRC as an offense, but what you said is factually inaccurate. Of course we’re democratic. Everything we do is done in public; every vote we take is made in public; people have an opportunity to come and speak to us. How is that any different from your ability to go to your congressperson and talk to them, or your ability to go to City Council and talk to them?

HELEN: So you’re saying this is how government works?

BILL: This is the democratic process. And if you want an elected school board, I think it’s far worse. Because you’re not going to actually do the hard things that are going to allow you to balance a budget, because you’re going to be pandering to get elected. I think an elected school board in Philadelphia would be a disaster and the end of the Philadelphia school system.

HELEN: I disagree. How about how we all listen to one another? I’m trying to get at a little bit less about whether we have an elected school board and more about these questions of whether we negotiate, how we listen to one another, how we hear each other.

BILL: From the SRC’s perspective, we have all these advocates coming in, and what are they asking for? They’re asking for actual things that we would want in all schools. More librarians, more counselors, more nurses, etc. But if we take actions to actually free up resources to make it possible to provide them, they will be opposed. And so they’re asking for these things, which no one in their right mind would disagree with, failing to recognize that the money has to come from somewhere. The district proposed to outsource its cleaning services two years ago; all of the advocates and elected officials were opposed. The schools would be clean; it would cost maybe three-quarters, two-thirds of the price. When the district does try to do things like that, none of the advocates support it.

PHILLY MAG: When you hear this, Helen, are you convinced? Are you swayed? How much do either of you, when talking to advocates or to folks in the district, actually rethink your position?

HELEN: I frequently have extremely positive interaction with district personnel. I learn a lot from a lot of them. I’m curious, though, because there’s this idea of power [with the SRC], and needing certainty, and “We know what works, we will put it in. You don’t know — we know.” I feel like there needs to be a lot more humility about this role.

PHILLY MAG: Which role, the SRC role?

HELEN: Well, especially the SRC, because most people on the SRC don’t have a teaching and learning background. They aren’t regularly in school and don’t have a wide breadth of contacts to be able to kind of balance out what they’re hearing and reading vs. what’s actually unfolding. It was interesting; on WHYY in June, you were given the question, “What kind of leverage does the SRC have?” You were like, “We have none,” which I don’t totally agree with because I don’t think you take a position with zero leverage. But I understand what you are getting at. Really, what it made me think about was how much more you need people to be on your side.

BILL: I agree with you completely. Here is the fundamental problem the district faces. The things we’re going to have to do in the future to eliminate our structural deficit are hard. They will cause most of the loud voices and advocates to not be on our side. Most advocates will say, “I’m not getting involved in that; we are not going to support you.” But they are still going to come before the SRC and ask for additional nurses and counselors and things that our structural deficit and our constant scrambling for money don’t permit. So I don’t know how to bridge that.



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