Helen Gym: The Agitator

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

A few years ago, before the reform advocates and parent activists had entered into all-out war, Jeremy Nowak and Gym were friendly. He even arranged for her and Pedro Ramos—who had just been named the chair of the School Reform Commission—to have dinner with him to discuss ways to improve the district. But then economic calamity struck, and as the district moved to shutter schools—a strategy that Nowak helped to advance while at the William Penn Foundation—Gym turned on him.

“Helen went into attack mode, viewing everything as a privatization conspiracy,” Nowak wrote me in an email. “At the same time she would frequently call me to solicit money for her charter school. I found this to be odd and hypocritical.”

When I told Gym what Nowak had written, she replied, “That would be more than odd; it would be outrageous. But it’s a complete lie.” Gym categorically denies personally asking Nowak to support FACTS, though she acknowledges that the school had gone to William Penn for funding in earlier years—which is hardly the same thing, in her view.

The particulars of that dispute aside, what’s significant here is that Gym’s critics aren’t just irritated by her; they’re also disappointed. They look at her and see a charter founder, with deep and broad knowledge of the district and a remarkably bright mind. And for a while, anyway, they think to themselves: There’s someone who could be a real partner. Only to find out, pretty quickly, that Gym will stick it to them in the most public fashion imaginable.

“I thought she could help us navigate some of the really difficult tensions in the system,” says a district official. “It became very clear to me that she preferred railing against whatever the district was doing. That’s where she seems to get all her energy.”

THERE’S LITTLE DOUBT that Gym relishes the fight. But the joy of the scrum is only a fraction of what motivates her. Gym is utterly convinced that the very survival of public education in Philadelphia is at stake right now, and she’s genuinely aghast at a reform movement that to her seems heedless and nihilistic. “What’s been done to the schools in this city is so extreme, to me it should be seen as outside of mainstream American values,” she says. “There is value in stability. There is value in innovation that is informed by careful research. But Philadelphia has been subjected to all manner of reckless experimentation driven by the vagaries and fantasies and whims of the corporate education takeover movement.”

I wince every time Gym uses the phrase “corporate education takeover movement,” or any of its variants. But her broader point has real merit. Ever since the state took over the district in 2001, the Philadelphia School District has been barraged by experimentation. There was the failed Edison Schools gambit, which put 20 city schools under the management of a for-profit company. Charter schools have opened in Philadelphia at a faster rate than almost anywhere else in the nation. Superintendents have come, sharply changed course, then left a few years later, trailing messes in their wake.

The great appeal of the education reform movement is its implicit promise that by upending the system, dramatic, positive change is possible. “Okay, that was appealing in 2001, 2002, 2003,” Gym says when I share this view with her. “But now? Really? How many times have we heard that message? And how much has any of it actually stabilized the Philadelphia public schools?”

This is right around the point in our conversation where I ask Gym if she isn’t just calling for a return to the status quo. After hitting me with the “fucking bullshit” line, Gym concedes that she and other activists don’t take enough time to present how they would improve education. She attributes that to being “hammered nonstop by stuff that is cooked up in boardrooms and think tanks about how to change education overnight.”

But Gym and others like her actually do have strong ideas on how to make public education work again: They want the focus on teachers who feel valued, parents who feel invested, and kids who have the sense that their education is about more than standardized tests. Though there’s a role for charters in her vision, they exist not to displace traditional public schools, but rather to pilot innovation and serve communities and kids with special needs or interests (à la FACTS).

These goals may sound quaint, even retro. But the education reform movement changes so quickly, and its ambitions have expanded so exponentially, that Gym’s agenda can’t help but seem limited in comparison.

In Philadelphia, at least, the political momentum is with the reformers. The biggest players here are all advocates of aggressive reform: Corbett, Nutter, and much of the presumptive 2015 mayoral field, including State Senator Anthony Williams and Councilman Bill Green. Given the political climate, Gym and her allies are easily cast as the irresponsible ones, which drives her mad.

She harks back to last spring, when the SRC was approving massive school closures while reformers were saying such measures were the only “adult” things to do. “Well, adults also know when something is completely pulled out of thin air. Adults also know not to chase the shiny ball every time it bounces by you,” Gym spits out.

One of the ironies of this debate is that its small-“c” conservatives are actually the progressive activists, like Gym. They’re the ones preaching prudence and stability in a world that is changing too rapidly.

And yet if she does run in 2015, Gym would start her campaign with a corps of adoring supporters in the city’s most liberal quarters. Technically, City Hall has little sway over the state-run school district. But Gym is convinced the district’s future can and should be shaped by the mayor and City Council.

Does that mean a run—for one office or another—is inevitable?

Gym, usually so candid, is suddenly coy. “It’s a big step, so I need to think about it,” she says. “But I am thinking about it.”