My Son Starts Kindergarten in Philly Today. Are We Crazy?

Public schools are worth fighting for because Philadelphia is worth fighting for. Here's one more way you can help.

Today, my son begins his first day of kindergarten at Albert M. Greenfield School in Center City.

There may have been worse times in Philadelphia history to start attending the city’s public schools—and given the history, maybe there’s never been a good time in the postwar era. But this seems a particularly bad time: Aside from teachers, the city’s schools are nearly empty of counselors, librarians, and other support staff that make classrooms something more than daytime detention cells with books. The state, which runs the schools, is refusing to pay the money it has set aside for education in Philadelphia. Gov. Corbett is demanding concessions from teachers before turning over that cash—but as far as I can tell, the teachers are in the classroom, fulfilling their obligations to students. Corbett has decided that beating the union is more important than serving kids now.

Regardless of blame, the end result is that Philadelphia schools are currently screwed.

Still, we’re not rich parents: Private school isn’t an option for us. So we’ve either got to make the best of a bad situation in the city’s public schools, or do what so many thousands of parents have done before us, and flee.

So far, we’re hanging on. It’s difficult, though, not to wonder if we’re just being crazy.

We are being besieged with donations: Parents at our school are being asked to contribute cash; the mayor is asking city residents to donate school supplies. And, of course, we’re going to help out wherever we can. It sure feels, though, that the very concept of public education in Philadelphia is crumbling as a result of this mess.

That idea is this: That public education is a public good—something that benefits everybody, and not just the consumers. The business owner gets educated employees, the state gets responsible citizens, and everybody who chooses gets a decent opportunity to make the most of the gifts they’ve been given. It’s an idea that helped create a middle class in this country, and without it it seems like the middle class in Philadelphia is likely to disappear entirely—the city left to the haves who can afford to send their kids to posh academies and the have-nots who don’t have the resources to do anything but watch another generation crumble.

I can’t imagine that’s the kind of city our leaders want. I can’t imagine that seemingly anti-urban, anti-Philadelphia leaders like Corbett and Daryl Metcalfe have thought through what a disaster that would mean for the state of Pennsylvania. I also can’t imagine, at this point, that they believe they have any obligation to the kids of Philadelphia—or to my kid, specifically.

All of which makes it irritating to see the schools and the city begging for donations. It means the our leaders have failed in their duty, period. If the police had to beg for donations for bullets for their guns, we’d see that as the disaster it is.

So we shouldn’t have to donate cash and school supplies to our schools. At this point, though, doing so feels like an act of subversiveness, of rebellion, of democracy, of hope. So I want to make sure that you know of one other avenue to help out: Mighty Writers—the nonprofit helps Philly kids become better readers, writers, and students—has responded to the closure of libraries at Masterman and Central schools by conducting a book drive, trying to collect as many books as possible for readers age 7 to 17.

“We expect to get enough books for the some 2,500 kids we work with in our three centers, but we hope to go beyond that and begin to have Mighty book giveaway days, when any city kid can stop by MW and pick out a book or three,” said Tim Whitaker, the organization’s executive director. (Full disclosure: Whitaker hired me at Philadelphia Weekly five years ago.)

“The parents we talk to are deeply concerned about what’s happening to the school system in the city, but they’re determined to get their kids every edge they can,” Whitaker said. “Their determination inspires us to work nonstop to reach as many kids as possible.”

And that, perhaps, is why our family sticking with Philadelphia public schools for now. Not because they’re where they need to be—they’re not. But because so many people are working to make it right. For my kid’s sake, and for the city’s future, I have to hope they win.