In Council News, Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, News by PHL Council

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Education advocacy organizations and local leaders convened hundreds of parents for a dialogue on school conditions, District leadership, and how to build parent power

PHILADELPHIA — Last night, hundreds of parents from across the city joined together over Zoom and Facebook Live to demand increased accountability and transparency from the School District of Philadelphia. As unfinished asbestos remediation efforts, piles of trash, and poor communication plagued the start of this year’s historic return to school, the Philadelphia Home and School Council brought together local leaders, caregivers, and advocacy organizations, including Parents United for Public Education and the Our City Our Schools Coalition, to organize for real change for the city’s public schools. The meeting took place on the heels of Dr. William Hite’s announcement that he would be ending his tenure as Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia after nearly a decade in the role, further energizing the conversation around changes that parents hope to see across the District.

“We’re here tonight to ring the alarm on school conditions, student safety, workers’ rights, and District accountability,” said Shakeda Gaines, President of the Philadelphia Home and School Council. “No announcement about a change in leadership will make us forget about the asbestos, mold, and lead that remain in our schools. No announcement will make us forget that food is not being delivered on time and our kids are going hungry while parents are being pushed out of their schools. No announcement will make us forget how the District has historically mistreated our students, teachers, principals, and staff. The School District is accountable to us—to parents, caregivers, families, workers, and students. And we are not backing down.”

The event was also co-hosted by Councilmembers Kendra Brooks (At-Large) and Helen Gym (At-Large), both of whom have robust backgrounds in parent organizing and fighting for fully-funded public education, as well as Representative Elizabeth Fiedler (184th District), a fellow parent and longtime advocate for Philadelphia public schools.

“As someone who comes out of parent organizing, I felt inspired and energized to see hundreds of caregivers come together to demand accountability and results from the District,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks. “Families are asking for the basic signs of dignity and respect that everyone deserves, and that they have been denied for far too long. Their voices were unified in demanding safe, healthy learning conditions; adequate school staffing and resources; and improved communication with families. I know firsthand that when parents come together to fight for change, they win. And that’s why I will continue to amplify the demands of parents and advocate for them to have a voice in the decisions that impact their kids’ lives.”

“If there’s one force that can bring about the change our District needs, it’s a coalition of well-organized parents — and that’s what we saw here tonight,” said Councilmember Helen Gym “We share a vision for a school district that goes beyond just meeting the basic needs of every student, and truly seeks to help them thrive and grow. To get us there, we need to work together and ensure caregivers have their voices heard on the future of our city’s schools, from district leadership to school facilities. Together, we will win the schools, transparency, and accountability our communities deserve.”

“Parents and caregivers are tired of the District’s lack of transparency and communication with families,” said State Representative Elizabeth Fiedler (184th District). “As a parent, I feel this frustration deeply. The problems we face feel overwhelming. The only way we move forward to bring about change is by building power together: as parents, guardians, elected officials, and community members, to stand together and demand transparency and respect. Tonight was a step in building that power.”

During the meeting, participants joined break-out rooms to discuss the conditions in their children’s schools and identify successes and opportunities for improvement. Afterwards, parents returned to the group to share highlights from their conversation and identify commonalities. Many caregivers pointed to toxic school conditions, a shortage of school nurses, and inconsistent communication from the District as common pain points. Others expressed gratitude for school staff and leadership, noting that many schools were doing the best they could with the minimal resources available to them. Multiple speakers were overcome with emotion as they recounted their experiences fighting against dangerous building conditions and unsafe school staffing year after year and expressed interest in being included in the search for the next superintendent.

“Parents want to be heard, but we feel shut out. Parents don’t feel comfortable sending their students to school,” said Samia Bolling, a parent of students at SLA Beeber. “We want transparency from the District and we need a say in choosing the successor of Superintendent Hite. We need to make sure the next administration is for the parents, not for themselves.”

“There is a disconnect between the priorities we have as caregivers and parents, and what the administration presents to us as school priorities. They’re focusing on flashy projects while neglecting what our children need the most — food, heating, cooling, schools free from lead and asbestos,” said Aileen Callaghan, also a parent of a public school student in Philadelphia. “When we called for more climate control workers, more paraprofessionals, and more ESL instructors, they actually cut the budget for these essential staff. We need to repair trust between students, teachers, parents and the administration.”

As the two-hour meeting came to a close, parents, guardians, and local leaders expressed a shared interest in continuing to facilitate citywide dialogues for school communities. The sponsoring organizations and elected officials plan to regularly engage this group of stakeholders to ensure their voices are heard by the School District of Philadelphia, in City Hall, and in Harrisburg.

“It is critical for inter-generational parents to come together — grandparents, mothers and fathers, and young parents — to collectively organize for our children’s future. Our kids have a right to access clean air, and safe, balanced classrooms,” said Saudia Durrant, a parent advocate and organizer. “The violence we see in our communities is a direct response to the violence from these institutions. They’re not making sure our children are safe — that’s going to impact how young people interact with one another.”


Photo: School District of Philadelphia

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