Helen Gym: The Agitator

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

THE BRAIN TRUST and most of the membership of Parents United for Public Education can fit into one of the large booths at the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy.

Gym, who co-founded the group in 2006, is at the back of one bench, crushed up against a wall, eating a BLT and listening as her fellow activists catch up on what they’ve seen over the past few weeks. None of it is good. This is mid-October, on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon. But the mood at the table is grim, alternating between frustration, hopelessness and anger.

A few weeks earlier, Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, appeared before City Council to propose a sweeping overhaul of the system that places kids within city schools. PSP is just over three years old, but already the fast-moving organization is considered the most potent reform group in the city, bolstered by huge donations from foundations and wealthy individuals.

For Gym and Parents United, PSP is an unqualified enemy. Any initiative it makes is viewed with deep-set suspicion, including this bid to take over the school-placement process, which PSP is offering to do free of charge for the first few years before instituting a nominal fee.

“Gleason’s going to fund it, just like the heroin dealer,” one parent at the table says, to uproarious laughter. “He’s going to give you a little taste, get you hooked. Then he’ll charge you.” Gym looks down the table at me over the detritus of half-eaten sandwiches and salads and winces, as though to silently ask: Do you have to quote that?

To her critics, such as Jeremy Nowak, the former president of the William Penn Foundation, Gym is the pied piper of wrongheaded parent outrage. Nowak sees her as a peddler of the misplaced notion that “every civil society attempt to intervene in the schools is part of an evil private conspiracy.”

Gym, though, isn’t stoking the outrage I’m witnessing today so much as attempting to focus and direct it. And this deep well of parent disgust in the district, and in those who want to dramatically remake it, is hardly limited to the committed activists.

The issue of split grades arises. “Pedagogically ridiculous,” Gym proclaims. These are instances when kids at two different grade levels are forced to share the same classroom and teacher, a practice the district largely ceased in 2008. But with budget constraints, split grades came roaring back at the beginning of this school year.

At A.S. Jenks, a quality K-4 school in South Philadelphia, only the kindergartners avoided enrollment in split grades. The parents were livid. But they had no idea how to actually change matters until they connected with Gym, who coached them in the art of activism. They filed complaints. They got in touch with the press. They organized a protest (in the rain) that lured the television cameras.

It worked. According to parents at the school, superintendent William Hite Jr. intervened personally. “I wrote on my Facebook page: ‘When I grow up, I want to be Helen Gym,’” says Jennifer Miller, a Jenks parent. “She really makes you want to fight for your children.”