My Son Is Getting a Great Education in Philly Public Schools

The bad news? There’s still a bigger battle to be fought.

Photo Jun 15, 5 56 56 PM

At Greenfield, recess has corporate sponsors.

The school year ends this week, which makes it as good a time as any to offer this announcement: I’m really glad my son attended a Philadelphia Public School this year.

Scratch that, and let’s start over: I’m really glad my son attended a specific Philadelphia Public School this year — Greenfield Elementary School in Center City. Greenfield often ends up on the list of the city’s best public schools; it’s why my family stayed in our tiny little Fitler Square basement apartment when we’d otherwise have moved long ago — to give our son the best possible chance at a good and affordable education in the city.

And he got it: T started out with some challenges — his late summer birthday made him probably the youngest student in the school, with maturity to match. That didn’t make for an easy start to the school year. But a persistent tough-love approach from his teacher (something we tried to reinforce at home) helped get him in shape: By the end of this year he was grading well on the social aspects of school — and as for the academic aspects, well, all I know is this: My son is now reading books, at the end of kindergarten, that I didn’t get to until I was in second grade. And I was a good reader!

The fears I’d expressed about sending T to a Philly public school at the beginning of the year: Largely erased.




The other parents at Greenfield know how good we have it. More than one has told me in recent weeks that if Greenfield hadn’t been an option for their child, they would’ve moved out of the city. (Some parents had quite deliberately moved in, or very near, Greenfield’s catchment.) But the school isn’t just an alternative to the ’burbs: A neighborhood mother I know sent her child to a nearby $20,000-a-year private school for kindergarten this year; she recently quizzed me about whether she should transfer her child into the public school

So, you know, hooray for us.

There’s just one problem that keeps nagging me: Is my son’s good (so far) public education simply a function of privilege — of living in a neighborhood where education and income rates are far above the city average? Or is there something replicable about what’s going on at Greenfield, something that other schools in the city can also do?

Because other public schools in Philly aren’t doing so well. People are leaving town because of them. The city’s future is in crisis because of them. Do I just be happy that my son is doing OK? Do we owe something more? Or are we part of the problem?

No easy answer

The answer, it turns out, isn’t a straight either-or. Greenfield wasn’t immune from the doomsday budget that opened the school year: It started the year without a number of staffers it had had in the past — even by the end of the year the principal, Dan Lazar, was acting as school nurse two days a week. Lazar even started growing a beard to protest the budget cuts; the beard jutted down probably five inches from his chin by year’s end.

“The silent protest really hasn't produced anything,” he told me last week, “so I think I'm gonna cut it.”

Let’s be straight: Privilege helps. Greenfield’s Home and School Association is legendary for its fund-raising. “The HSA giveth what budget cuts taketh away,” Philly Mag wrote in 2011, and it’s still true today. “We have benefited from the fact that parents do a lot of fundraising,” Lazar told me. “That's part of what our Home [and] School [Association] does is fundraise for those things that we as a school can't afford.”

In fact, it’s a mix. There’s fund-raising: Recess comes with corporate sponsors. There’s volunteering: My son took an after-school art class from a parent volunteer this spring. And there’s simply savvy: Some Greenfield parents helped the school secure status as an Education Improvement Tax Credit institution — meaning businesses can donate money to the school and get a big tax break in return. (Greenfield is one of the few public schools in the state that has this arrangement, though Philly’s Center City District also has a similar arrangement with schools in the district.)

All of that, Lazar said, has been the result of a concerted effort to build a relationship between the school and Greenfield’s parents. “I wrote a doctoral dissertation on creating relationships with parents,” Lazar said, “and you see sort of the effect of that, of what sort of community has been created in five years here.”

The good news: Parental involvement doesn’t have to be tied to socioeconomic privilege — but it can and does have to be cultivated. Helen Gym, the firebrand activist who heads Parents United for Public Education, pointed out to me that it was parental involvement at Luis Munoz-Marin  and Edward T. Steel elementary schools that have so far staved off takeover by charters.

“Here were two schools targeted by the district for charter conversion based on ‘failing’ test scores,” she said. “Parents however had a broader vision of what made a quality school beyond just two data points (math and reading) — pointing to things like culture, community and leadership stability.” Parents at both schools voted to remain in the public system.

So I asked Gym:  How do we support and be happy with our public school, yet still participate in advocating for the plight of Philly public schools generally?

The answer, it seems, is to support and fight for both as best we can — and, you know, maybe try not to bask too much in our family’s privilege.

“We fight for schools like Greenfield as much as we fight for schools like J.B. Kelly and South Philly High and Edward T. Steel and Samuel Gompers,” Gym told me in an email.  “The false idea is that somehow what's at Greenfield doesn't exist in other schools, or that other children don't deserve what yours have.” It’s important to advocate for all those schools, she said, while making sure we leave room for voices of families with different experiences and backgrounds.

The good news? I don’t have to feel a bunch of White Liberal Guilt over my son’s great public school education: I do owe it to him, after all, to provide the best upbringing I can. The parents and staff and administration at the school owe it to themselves and each other to create the best school they can. The bad news? That doesn’t get me off the hook, either. Philly’s public schools are still in dire straits; this city and its students deserve much, much better.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • veteran school nurse

    Thanks for staying in the city and for speaking up for our public schools.The only thing you mentioned that I take issue with is the EITC money that enabled funneling of tax money to your school in an admittedly wealthier neighborhood.This back door voucher program allows businesses to get a 90 percent tax credit by their participation. So that is money that would theoretically have made its way to our cash starved schools across the city in an equitable fashion.
    We all need to allow ourselves to recognize the fundamental inequity here. We all need to fight for the remaining students in neighborhoods like the Blaine and Kelley Schools. These schools should be spared the indignity of being labeled as in need of “innovation” and “transformation” when they are seriously being denied adequate funding and when when their families are among the poorest in the city. As a middle class person myself I need at a minimum to be honest about this. The Hunger Games has arrived in Philadelphia as schools have to individually trample over each other for the temporary cash offered by the Philadelphia School Partnership, a private organization intent on dismantling our public schools. The affluent temporarily win this game, but we all lose in the long run. As a school nurse I work in both a special admit high school and in a neighborhood elementary school. I am a lifelong resident of this city. I see the fallout of these misguided education reform policies every day. it does not look pretty.

    • Veteran Teach

      As a veteran teacher and one that has worked at Blaine, I can attest to the fact that there is plenty of money going into that school. They have more technology than other public schools. They are currently being allotted $1.5 million to “transform” the school. What needs to change is the mindset of the community and the parents. There is plenty of support and monetary incentives going int that school and community….but it continues to fail…is it the community? the staff? the administration? I will keep on praying for these individuals.

  • critical mass

    Good article. However, one thing: Don’t put away your guilt bonnet quite yet. Privilege does matter, for privileged parents demand more and get more from their schools, because at each of these schools that cater to a privileged population, you have a diverse set of expertise as well as money: children of professors, lawyers, doctors, accountants, artists, bankers, etc. They know how to fund raise, they know how to get tax exemptions, they have connections with businesses and politicians; they know what a good education looks like, having often had one such themselves. You are simply not going to get this in most impoverished areas of the city, not this vast pool of top-level resources with deep pockets and broad connections.

    • Public school parent

      Yes, we know what a good education looks like and we know it’s worth fighting for. Rather than sit around feeling guilty while sipping bellinis, though, we actually do fight for each and every school and each and every child. For full disclosure, I too am a Greenfield parent. My husband and I are products of public schools and hope our children will be as well, not as part of some grand social experiment but because the perspective they are getting in public schools is very important in shaping them as people. Despite its zip code, Greenfield is a diverse urban school, and it’s not all peaches and cream. We do help with fundraising, we do write grants and reach out to people we know, but I’ve also swept mouse droppings, scrubbed bathrooms and fixed broken furniture. I’ve volunteered in other public schools in the city that are not attended by my kids. We are engaged in education advocacy in the city and state, and when I walk around City Hall and talk to anyone who cares to listen to me I do say that I’m not there because of my kids, but because of all the kids in this city whose families don’t have a voice, safety, security and support that the public school system and a city that likes to think of itself as a vibrant cradle of American history should provide. I don’t think that I have much to feel guilty about, quite frankly.

      • veteran school nurse

        You don’t and I thank you for your comment.

      • critical mass

        I didn’t suggest you should sit around drinking bellinis (what a privileged thing to suggest!) but rather not to spend too much time clapping yourself on the back for being in a position to ensure that your child’s school is in good shape. It’s great that you pitch in at another school but in the end, what will forever distinguish the Greenfields from the many impoverished schools of North, West, South, and Northeast Philly is all that cultural and financial capital that the parents of many “Greenfield” students bring to the table. We must organize and ensure that substantial funding goes to *all* schools, not just those that sit in the midst of privilege. And while donating time to schools is an admirable thing, it’s also like trying to empty the Atlantic with a slotted spoon.

  • brinsley

    Is Greenfield one of the Center City schools where parents are making voluntary monthly donations as requested by the principal? I know that Meredith is, not sure about Greenfield.

    Parents who keep their kids in public schools and stay in the city should be congratulated. But the EITC is not a good method for making sure that all schools are funded equally.

  • Charliefoxtrot

    Mathis seems to be slowly coming to the realization that *culture*, rather than inequality, is the big driver of successful schools and communities. Successful communities share common values, values that leftists deride as unnecessary (married households with two working adults, religiosity, work ethics, self sacrifice, etc etc) all of which have largely vanished in the city, simply replaced by LBJ’s personal responsibilty destroyer known as the “Great Society”.

    Black marriage rates exceeded whites’ before the bills passage, but since Daddy Government can do all the jobs that are required of a parent -food, clothing, shelter, etc, it had the unintended effect of strangling generations of families, with no end in sight.

    Listen, I get how leftist concerns about inequality are a terrific way of never confronting the utter fawking failures of their policies; keeping in mind that the city is managed by leftists for many generations, and was utterly ruined by a combo of Great Society do-goodism, union wage controls, and lefty obsession with regulation which helped to turn the Workshop of the World into thousands of empty buildings who’s owners simply couldn’t compete in the regulatory environment created by the left, smothered to death in union work rules, the wage tax, business “privilege” tax etc.. and corruption in City Hall.

  • Bob Henry

    Veteran school nurse you are correct that EITC does take tax dollars away from the state, sadly public schools have too long missed out on the funding that charters and private schools have taken advantage of. It is another way for non profit organizations to funnel dollars to all public schools.

  • Annethensome

    The problem with the “both & approach” – both fundraise for your school and advocate for every other school – is the finite nature of time. Like me, most mothers have jobs. Unlike me, many other Philadelphia mothers are raising their children without a good partner, which places more constraints on their time. The advice to both advocate politically and fundraise at the school-based level is really only possible if you are a stay at home mom with a supportive partner or you have a very flexible job. Advocacy is important, but lets be realistic about the types of people who are able to do it, let alone do both fundraising at the school-level and political advocacy citywide. Time is my most precious resource and I intend to spend it where it will have the greatest impact. Many people share the same calculation. In addition, there is not a enough agreement about tactics and goals in the city-level education advocacy community. For example, many may believe the PFT needs to chip in something to avert fiscal disaster. Others disagree. Many parents want site-based selection across the board. Others disagree. The hard work of organizing is finding consensus, agreeing on goals, settling on tactics and moving forward together. HSAs can more easily do this. Parents and citizens citywide? Not so much. Uttering the phrase “follow me because I am right” – is not going to get it done no matter how “right” anyone may be.

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    I want to share a free application that helps memorize math facts. You can practice multiplication, division, addition, fractions e.t.c.

    Students earn rewards for their work!

    Web: http://mathskillbuilder.org/

    Android app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.msb

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