One Monday morning in early December, Lauren Summers went where so many parents around town won’t dare: A local public school. Specifically, the Horatio B. Hackett Elementary School in Kensington, an up-and-coming school in an up-and-coming neighborhood that Summers decided needed a peek. She came armed with the tools she brings to every school she visits: A camera, a willingness to be impressed, and two reams of paper—a basic that almost every principal in town can’t get enough of.
As happened on the 12 other school visits she made last fall, Summers was impressed by what she saw at Hackett. Engaged students. Bright hallways papered with student awards and school achievements. An energetic principal, Randi Klein-Davila, who credits her data center— which meticulously tracks the progress of each of her 375 students—for ensuring the school’s test scores are well above the city average. A vibrant parent association that is in the midst of revamping the school’s playground. In essence, a place far different than the scary behemoth some might expect, given the stories about Philly schools.
“[Hackett] proved to be bright, inviting and orderly, and full of interested and engaged kids everywhere,” Summers later recounted in a posting to her 800-plus followers of her Facebook page, Philly School News. “Thank you again to the faculty, staff and students at Hackett for the invitation into your day. We can’t wait to see the success stories that come out of this catchment’s school.”
Summers had never considered sending her own son to her neighborhood public school — even though she’d never visited or met the principal. “I realized I’d been such a snob,” she says.
For Summers, Hackett once again proved her running thesis: “The schools in Philly are much better than people give them credit for.”
Summers wasn’t always an evangelist for neighborhood schools. Like so many city parents before and after her, she spent her son’s pre-K year applying to acclaimed charters, looking into private schools, even trying to “worm her way into” Center City’s Greenfield Elementary by volunteering for cleanup days. She never even considered sending her son to her neighborhood public school—even though she’d never visited, or met the principal, or spent any time talking to people about it. “In my mind, the local public school was a last resort,” she says.
Summers managed to enroll her son in one of Center City’s coveted public schools—then noticed flyers for an open house at her neighborhood elementary and decided to attend. She “was completely blown away” by the teachers, the security, the curriculum, the behavior of the children.
“I realized I’d been such a snob,” she says. “Did I really think my kid was too good for the school? He’s not. At that age, they are so responsive to what’s going on around them, and what was going on there was great.”
Summers, who works in the communications department at Penn, joined her son’s Home and School Association last year, and realized two things soon after: No one at one school knows what’s going on at another school. And, so many parents have the same trepidation she did about their local publics. One afternoon in October, Summers says she was in the park with her kids when another mother started complaining about the school options for her pre-K child. “She said, ‘I would die if I had to resort to my catchment school,’” Summers recalls. Then the woman named the school: Andrew Jackson, in East Passyunk. “Jackson? Jackson is a school that people are fighting to get into now,” says Summers. “But she didn’t know that.” Summers suggested to the woman that she should at least visit Jackson before making a decision—though she’s not sure she ever did.
Meanwhile, the conversation sparked an idea: If other parents were too scared to walk in to their neighborhood elementary schools, maybe Summers could do it for them. She started Philly School News on November 4, with bright, colorful pictures from inside Edwin M. Stanton School. Since then, she has used the page to promote kindergarten open houses throughout the city; link to news articles about Philly schools; advocate for more involvement in schools; and tell her followers of activities for students around town. She also started visiting schools herself—as she did with Hackett—to file reports about what’s going on behind the walls.
Summers describes herself as “pro-public school, not necessarily anti-charter.” Still, in December, she found herself as one of the chief critics of the charter school application for MaST Center City—in particular its proposal to enroll mostly Center City residents. After she raised concerns on Philly School News, 120 people commented on the post, and she entered into a public online debate with Ben Persofsky, the head of the charter group. (Persofsky credits Summers with helping to shift his group’s planning.) It was an unexpected role for Summers—though not necessarily an unwelcome one.
By early February, Summers had more than 750 followers on her page, which she regards as evidence of a burgeoning need for hopeful information. (Some of her posts, particularly news stories, have been forwarded over 2,000 times.) “It’s always bad news we’re hearing about,” she notes. “But great things are happening all over, and I think people want to know about that, too.”
Still, Summers is not a pollyanna. Through her work with her son’s school, she recognizes how much it takes to keep schools running smoothly—and knows that in many parts of the city, principals don’t get the support that can help propel a school towards success. “My son’s ‘lucky’ school still has so many needs,” she says. “Even though there are so many involved parents.” So far, Summers has limited her visits to schools in communities where young parents and civic-minded neighbors are working to make the schools better—places where she might have considered sending her own son, if she lived there. She doesn’t research test scores, or interview parents, or observe more than a few minutes of classroom time. It’s not her job to convince anyone of the best place to send their kids. “That’s a really personal decision,” she notes. She simply opens the door, providing a parents-eye view of what it looks like inside the walls. Her message, time and again, is the same: Don’t write this place off. It is worth at least a visit.
“I love Philly, and would hate to see all this growth we have now falling off,” she says. “My goal is for people to work together to improve these schools, and to send their kids there. That’s something that’s good for everyone.”