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.