When I drove into the Fitler Square neighborhood for the first time in the summer of 2008, I was desperate. I had never been to Philadelphia before, but had suddenly taken a job here and had one 36-hour visit to find a place to live. The decision was increasingly critical because my wife was pregnant, and we needed not just a place to live, but a place a child could live safely. All I’d seen in my day-and-a-half were either apartments that were too expensive, however, or neighborhoods where street gutters literally overflowed with trash. Maybe, I thought, it would be better to turn my back on Philadelphia and find a different job.
And then, in Center City, I saw the strollers.
One, at first, but then another and another. The neighborhood women who weren’t pushing a stroller, it seemed, were pregnant anyway. This was a place that families chose to live. So we made a deal on a relatively cheap half-basement apartment, told ourselves it was probably temporary, and (to our surprise) started to put down roots. Center City became … home.
Turns out we were part of a wave of young, college-educated professional parents who have made that choice in recent years. Amid all the hand-wringing over crime, budget cuts, library cutbacks, and unemployment of recent years, it seemed that one thing Philadelphia could—and did—really celebrate is the return of families to the city core.
Now that progress is very much threatened.
Why? Because the Philadelphia School District—never the city’s finest institution, even in better times—appears to be coming undone entirely. On Thursday, the School Reform Commission basically demoted the district’s chief administrative officers, and announced that deep budget cuts are coming. On the chopping block, according to The Inquirer: “spring sports, all instrumental music, all gifted programs, half the district’s psychologists.” Summer school is essentially done. And school police could be cut entirely—this just months after a series of reports raised serious questions about the levels of violence in city schools.
If you’re a young, college-educated professional parent—the kind the city is so proud to welcome—the message is this: Run.
To the suburbs. To another state maybe. But do anything you can to protect your child from the wreckage of the Philadelphia School District. And that message threatens to undo all the progress made in Center City in recent years.
I understand that the district has been a wreck a long time, that the School Reform Commission itself was created by that state to put an end to the devastation wrought under local control, that Philadelphia is home to to most of the state’s failing schools even now. What’s more, I know many of my Center City neighbors send their kids to private schools, or to one of the city’s (also troubled) parochial schools. So complaining that the newest round of cuts may have a devastating effect on Center City’s revitalization must seem like white people problems.
But there are plenty of parents who remain in the city because their nearby public schools have proven the exception to that rule. We’ve stayed put near Fitler Square because we love the neighborhood, yes, but also because we’re near Greenfield School, reputedly one of the good public schools in the city. Heck, Ronnie Polaneczky wrote in October for this magazine about raising a child in the city—and how the ability to send her kid to a good public school was a critical element in that decision.
It’s also clear that Mayor Nutter sees a revitalized Center City as critical to his efforts to keep Philadelphia from spinning out of control. There are beatings and murders in this city nearly every day, but the mayor only went into a West Philadelphia church to decry “butthead” gangs of roving teens when a few people were assaulted near 15th and Walnut streets. It’s not at all fair. Mayor Nutter knows that building Philadelphia is possible only if the city can retain a professional class and its families.
So he should be on high alert as the SRC makes its budget cuts. If schools are being stripped for parts because its administrators couldn’t see this financial disaster coming, I’m not sure what choices my family will have. We love living in the city, but we’re not precious about it: I’m not willing to sacrifice my son’s education and well-being just because I like being in walking distance of Rittenhouse Square.
I’m willing to bet there are plenty of parents like us. The crisis in the school district threatens the revitalization of the city core. What’s bad for the schools could end up being awful for the entire city.