Helen Gym: The Agitator

Fiery Helen Gym has been the bane of school reformers. Is she eyeing the mayor's office next?


Helen Gym Parents United P.A.

Photograph by Colin Lenton

Helen Gym advances, and Mayor Nutter inches warily back. She waves a thick stack of papers at him, each sheath a complaint lodged by parents lamenting the calamitous conditions in Philadelphia’s reeling public schools. There’s the kid with dangerous asthma at the school without a nurse on hand. The dyslexic, orphaned high-school senior applying for colleges with no counselor to lean on. The bullying victim who fled Overbrook High only to find it impossible to enroll at another school.

“This is what we’re fighting against,” Gym tells Nutter. The Mayor is just a few yards from his office door, but he’s the one shifting his feet, looking to get away.

Minutes earlier, Gym had wrapped up a news conference in the ornate Mayor’s Reception Room, where, with the assistance of City Council, she’d usurped a podium usually used by Nutter and his invited guests. Gym and her allies were there to tout their latest pressure tactic: written complaints designed to compel the state to meet basic education standards and shake loose some badly needed dollars for the district.

“It would be nice to have your support, Mayor,” Gym tells him. Nutter issues a few noncommittal mumbles, cleans his glasses, and back-steps for the stairway. Gym shrugs. Powerful figures often look for the exits when she approaches.

That’s what happens when you develop a rep as perhaps Philadelphia’s preeminent public agitator. Relentless, whip-smart, meticulously prepared and utterly fearless, Gym—a private citizen who works without the heft of any meaningful institutional support—has managed to build herself one of the city’s largest bully pulpits.

And bully she does. Her foes are “hilarious and dishonest.” Education reformers are “corporate raiders” and “party shills.” Columnists she disagrees with are operating a “Corbett PR flack machine.” And that’s just a sample of a 10-day run on Gym’s Twitter feed. She’s equally relentless when face-to-face with her targets.

Gym’s critics, and they are legion, consider her assaults out of bounds and unhelpful—and that’s sometimes true. But it’s a little rich to hear some of the city’s most powerful people complain that they’ve been wounded by a school parent. (Gym’s three kids attend Masterman and Central, two elite magnet schools.) More importantly, in a city where there’s precious little public questioning of authority, and where most movers and shakers would actually prefer that not much move or shake, Gym’s candor is bracing.

It was Gym (and, she would insist, her allies as well) who refused to let the school district get away with covering up horrendous racial violence at South Philadelphia High in 2009. It was Gym who ratcheted up the political pressure on the patronage-dense Philadelphia Parking Authority, helping produce reforms that have generated millions of dollars for the schools. And it was Gym’s constant banging of the transparency drum that has led the district—and City Hall—to make public formerly secret documents, contracts and arrangements.

A youthful 45, Gym is as ferocious as ever, and her public profile has never been larger. But these days, she’s laboring mightily not so much to remake the system as to preserve what’s left of it.

Philadelphia has become a premier battleground in a high-stakes national debate over the future of K-12 education. On one side are the self-styled reformers, a group with not much patience and a thirst for bold experimentation. On the other sit the teachers unions and, more interestingly, activists like Gym, whose opposition to the reform agenda is layered and nuanced but boils down to an aversion to the dismantling of traditional public schools and a deep-seated mistrust of the reformers’ motives.

All of which has meant that Gym now expends much of her energy resisting the potent forces working to transform the nature of education in Philadelphia. These days, Gym says “no” an awful lot. No to unchecked charter expansion. No to dramatic union concessions. No to the philanthropists using their checkbooks to influence public-education policy.

The iconoclastic Helen Gym is digging in. So I ask her: Helen, have you turned into an advocate for the educational status quo?

Her eyes widen.

“That’s such fucking bullshit,” she says.