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Hornstein: How to rebuild Philadelphia’s public education system from the ground up

Spoiler alert: This is a positive story about public education in Philadelphia. It is a story of communities coming together to support and strengthen neighborhood schools.

The story in some ways starts with a couple named Ivy and Matt. About nine years ago, Ivy and Matt moved into the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. They weren't yet married and didn't have any children. But they loved Philadelphia and their neighborhood and knew that a strong community is built around a strong public school. They wanted to learn more about their neighborhood school so they toured and met the principal and were impressed with what they found. They also quickly saw that they would be able to support the school by organizing the community around the value of public education. Like other Philly public schools, most of the students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, but the principal inspired confidence. They wanted others to share their enthusiasm.

Thus was born the Friends of Chester Arthur or FoCA. In the past seven years FoCA has raised close to $2 million to improve the physical infrastructure of Arthur and to support the principal’s vision for a quality school. FoCA has worked tirelessly to support staff, teachers, students and parents. FoCA has also worked hard to spread the good word about their school. And their efforts are paying off; Arthur today is a thriving school, and Ivy and Matt are thrilled that their son starts kindergarten there this fall.

Meanwhile, numerous neighborhood schools, mainly in low-income neighborhoods, have been shuttered in the past decade. In response, groups like Action United and POWER have joined others to form PCAPS, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools.

I had the privilege of serving as president of Queen Village Neighbors Association (QVNA) from 2012 through 2015. Most of us in Queen Village consider ourselves fortunate to have the wonderful Meredith School in our neighborhood. But Meredith was not always a top-ranked school of choice for neighborhood kids. Meredith became great because for the past 20 years the community has wrapped itself around the school. It truly does take a village to raise a school.

Around the same time FoCA was getting into high gear, the QVNA board began to turn its attention to our neighborhood’s “other” public school, the George Nebinger School. Though just a few blocks away, it might as well have been on another planet. Several QVNA board members lived in the catchment for that school, but had never even considered sending their children there. One of them, Ben Schindler, was recently featured in a New York Times story about how increasing numbers of middle-class urbanites are choosing neighborhood public schools. Ben and other leaders like Leslie Tyler, then chair of QVNA’s Schools & Youth Committee as well as First Lady of Mother Bethel AME Church, met with then-Nebinger principal Ralph Burnley and together they decided to form a Friends group.

A small group of community members has come together to support a principal’s vision for an excellent neighborhood public school. They have organized tours of Realtors to visit neighborhood schools. As a result, Realtors who work in Queen Village no longer pretend that Nebinger doesn’t exist. They have fundraised to provide needed supplies, and mobilized volunteers.

The good news is that such efforts are happening in about three dozen neighborhood public schools across the City. When the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition formed a few years ago, it became clear quickly that pulling together all of these Friends groups into a network to support each other and share best practices made a lot of sense.

As chair of the PCC’s nascent Education Committee, I reached out to leaders I knew who are working in the Friends group space, and we invited 10 people to a meeting. To our pleasant surprise, nearly 50 people from 15 schools showed up. Clearly we had tapped into something.

When over 100 people showed up from more than 25 schools to a summit in the spring of 2015, we realized we had the beginnings of a movement. We dubbed the network Friends Of Neighborhood Education, or FONE.

We continue to meet regularly and held our second Summit this past April, which had about 125 people from more than 30 schools and from 28 of the city’s 54 ZIP codes. We are applying for a planning grant to build a permanent organization to support the Friends movement. This movement will only grow beyond the gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods in the City if we have full-time professional staff. We believe that what is happening here in Philadelphia could become a nationally significant experiment in socio-economic integration of neighborhood public schools.

We know we need to bring together the mainly middle-class Friends group leaders with their counterparts who have been fighting the good fight against school closures in lower-income neighborhoods. The movement will only thrive and grow if it is informed by and includes diverse perspectives, and as we move toward institutionalizing our movement the ability to do outreach in non-gentrifying areas and communities of color will be central. We believe the Friends group model can be adapted to work in any community that wants to support its schools.

More than most other city stakeholders, the development community “gets it” that good schools and stable neighborhoods go hand-in-glove. That is why I was thrilled by the enthusiastic reception to my talk at the Development Workshop in June. I am optimistic that we can find meaningful ways to work together, whether that means matching developers with neighborhood schools in areas where they are building or financial support to the movement as a whole.

Because private fundraising happening at schools with robust Friends groups could exacerbate inequality, we have set up the Philadelphia Public School Giving Circle, a donor-advised fund managed by the Philadelphia Foundation, to support those schools and principals where there is currently little-to-no fundraising capacity. We raised over $10,000 from personal donations and will be launching the fund shortly. Additional financial support is welcome.

In short, the community leaders of the groups that comprise FONE believe that the best days of Philadelphia’s public schools might just be ahead of us. Join the movement to help us rebuild Philadelphia’s public education system from the ground up. Feel free to reach out to me directly via email if you’d like to discuss.


Jeff Hornstein is a resident of Queen Village and serves as the Chair of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition’s Education Committee.

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