The start of a new school year is a reminder—despite all else going on in this world—that in Philadelphia, our most vexing, most important, most pertinent issue is still one that in some way affects every single resident: Education.
This year, teachers have gone back to their classrooms with a new contract; the District is in better financial shape than recent years; more families are choosing public schools for their children; and so many people, organizations and companies are pitching in to make better schools for everyone. This is all good.
But the work of ensuring a fair and good education for all students in the city is far from complete. Yes, it would be great if schools had the leadership, funds, talent and non-academic resources to solve all their own issues—or if the District, that mammoth bureaucracy, had the ability to create real and rapid change where it’s needed. But until that happens, it’s up to all of us to make sure all kids in Philly have what they need to succeed.
Here, some ideas to get you started.
Call your local school, and ask what help they need.
Don’t assume you know. It might be volunteering; it might be supplies. It might be that they tell you to call back in a month when they have time to breathe. Principals are often overwhelmed, but the good ones also know how to accept help. Find your local school here.
Help kids read.
Photo: Ken Royal
West Philadelphia Alliance for Children offers two opportunities for volunteering: As a library buddy, tutoring one Kindergarten-3rd grader for about an hour a week. And as a “librarian” in one of the 14 schools in which they have opened and staff libraries. Want to donate instead? WePAC also accepts monetary help, and carefully-curated books.
Donate to teachers’ classroom projects.
Teachers spend several hundred dollars a year out of their own pockets to decorate and stock their classrooms. But sometimes even that isn’t enough. At crowdfunding site DonorsChoose, teachers upload the supplies they need for classroom projects— everything from books on tolerance, to science kits, to special needs activities. As of today, you can select from more than 650 Philadelphia projects, catalogued by type of school, subject matter, cost, and age group. Or, donate in person at a PhilaSoup event, a quarterly soup dinner in which teachers pitch their projects and are awarded monetary prizes based on how many folks show up.
Join a “Friends of” group for your nearby school.
Find a group here, in the Friends of Neighborhood Education schools directory (run by the Crosstown Coalition). Don’t see your neighborhood school on the list? Check out FONE’s guide to starting a Friends of group yourself.
Donate to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.
The Fund, which is at the tail end of raising money to install literacy-focused libraries in every K-3 classroom in the city. Next up, the Fund is launching an “equity map” that will catalog the extra supports received by each school in the city, so folks can see what kind of help is needed and where. Donations to the fund are tax-deductible.
Not sure what you want to do, or where? The Fund can help you help out.
Join your child’s Home and School Association.
Don’t discount the value you can bring to your child’s school, just by showing up. They’ll put you to work, for sure.
Clean up the sidewalks.
Photo: Pat Loeb
At some schools, principals take time every day to pick up outside their walls—everything from chip bags to discarded needles. Make the morning walk to school a pleasant one for everyone—and teach good habits at the same time. And keep yourself updated on citywide cleanups.
Serve as a lookout.
Watch out for kids walking to and from school. Join WalkSafePhl, to officially register as a school safe corridor volunteer, and the city will send you a special vest so kids can identify you if they need help.
Attend School Reform Commission meetings.
Not all charter schools are bad; not all traditional publics are scary. Look beyond the screaming to what’s really there. Visit your neighborhood school before deciding to move away. Attend charter school open houses to see what’s the best fit for your child. And also remember: The best choice for you, in your neighborhood, may not be the best choice for someone else, in their neighborhood, right now. It really isn’t a one-size-fits-all model in Philly. Sign up for school district newsletters. Learn more about charter schools.
Buy your sugary drinks in the city.
If you’re buying them anyway, do it in a way that supports local businesses and helps fund the city’s pre-K program, something most experts agree helps to level the playing field for elementary school students.
Join your local civic association.
Photo: The Philadelphia Orchestra
Neighborhood groups often have education committees, and at the very least are usually in contact with school principals. Through your local civic, you can find out about drives, and fundraisers, and neighborhood events to support the nearby schools.
Hold courageous conversations about race with teachers, school administrators and students.
It’s been a rough summer here in America, and our children have had to face issues some (lucky ones) may never have had to contend with before. School is about education; so educate them. The internet is full of articles, like this one from Child Mind Institute, with advice on how to talk to children about the events in Charlottesville. Offer to buy your child’s school one or more of these books, recommended by The New York Times, on racism.
Support efforts to recruit more black male teachers.
Photo: Mastery Charter School
Mastery Shoemaker principal and Citizen contributor Sharif El-Mekki is leading the charge to bring 1,000 black male teachers to city classrooms by 2025, through Black Male Educators for Social Justice. Learn how you can help.
Remember all teachers.
They work hard, and they do the most important job in the city. Thank them. Ask what they need from you as a parent, or a neighbor. Bring them breakfast, or lunch, or coffee—nothing says “I appreciate you” like a couple dozen Federal Donuts.
Want better charter school legislation? Want fairer funding formulas? Think more money should flow to city schools? Then get to Harrisburg, or at least call your state legislators, so they know what you think. Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth offers ways to “Take Action Today” for issues related to children, searchable by zip code. One immediate thing you can do: Call Gov. Tom Wolf to weigh in on his decision to cut down on standardized testing.
Donate to the Philadelphia Public School Giving Circle.
Run through the Philadelphia Foundation, to crowdsource funding for projects in low-income elementary schools. Since it launched in January, around 30 donors have given over $10,000. Donate here.
Support the Free Library.
The Free Library provides after school tutoring, literacy training and branches with free WiFi for students throughout the school district. Click here to give.
Do you own a small business?
Offer services, products or gift cards for auctions at a local school.
Do you manage a large company?
Adopt a school that has volunteer needs, by working with the district’s Office of Strategic Partnerships. And then encourage your employees to donate time—by giving them time off during the day to help out. Not only will the school appreciate the consistent, focused effort, your employees will too.
Volunteer for an after school sports organization.
Students Run Philly Style, Girls Run Philly or Cadence Youth Cycling are just a few great examples. Most city public schools have few or no after school sports, something proven to keep kids healthy, safe and focused. Or, volunteer at your local rec center, so kids have physical activity in their day.
Or, volunteer for non-sporty after school activities.
Just because you should. It really is the answer to so many, many problems we have.