Yes, it’s summer. And yes, your kids and teachers are on a break from school.
But that doesn’t mean we can let the effort to make Philadelphia schools work for every student disappear from view. There’s still so much to keep worrying about: increased fears about school and school-adjacent shootings, the controversy surrounding structural changes to the school lottery system — and Philadelphia’s ever-present, seemingly endless public education crisis, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, subpar facilities, a serious lack of school teachers, and bus drivers, and support staff and … You get the idea.
This summer, new superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr., is making the rounds to meet and greet Philadelphians and find out what they want to see him do in his new job.
We too reached out to those on the education frontlines to get tips on the most meaningful ways to help now, and as we look ahead. Below, what we learned.
How to help Philly schools, teachers, students and their families now
1. REACH OUT TO JUST ONE SCHOOL
Want to make a big impact in a personal way? Give a call to your neighborhood school, kids’ school, alma mater, or any individual school you feel a connection to, and ask what needs they have and how you can help. You can find email addresses for leaders through the Philadelphia School District website. But, really, the folks who answer the phones will know exactly where to send you. (Pro tip: Many even pick up over the summer.)
Questions to ask: Do they have a clothes closet and accept new or secondhand uniform clothes and outerwear — and, if so, what kinds and colors? Do their teachers keep wish lists? Are there any special programs — music, art, gym, sports — that could use specialized equipment or supplies? Does the school have any service needs, like gardening, grant writing, accounting, fundraising or field trip scouting? Is there a school family that you could help anonymously?
The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia has a Philly FUNDamentals program where individual schools post the things they need.
2. PROVIDE MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT
After two years of tumultuous learning, Philadelphians, especially students, need mental health services now more than ever. Make sure you and your neighbors know about the free mental health services available locally.
Gun violence across the city and country has also created an already urgent emotional crisis for Philadelphia students. The district plans to increase climate support services to help students experiencing trauma. In the meantime, speak to your children — and make sure your kids’ schools are speaking to their students — about school shootings and gun violence in general.
3. KEEP KIDS READING
In the spirit of minimizing the summer slide and, now, the Covid slide, the literacy program Read to Succeed is looking for donations and volunteer (online) readers. Donate here (select Read to Succeed from the dropdown menu) and contact Read to Succeed for info on being a community reader.
The Center for Black Educator Development is looking for high school and college students who want to develop skills as aspiring teachers, and impact the literacy rates of rising first through third graders in our communities. Sign up and learn more here.
You can also support Read by 4th, by donating to the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation and designating that your donation should go to Read by 4th. They’ll also be launching a new summer volunteer portal on their website soon, to recruit people to read aloud virtually.
And if you want to donate children’s books, you can contact Read by 4th’s partner, Tree House Books, to donate books that will then be redistributed to families.
4. EMPLOY TEENS THIS SUMMER — AND ALL YEAR
Philadelphia Youth Network is committed to working with the School District to provide students with virtual employment and shadowing opportunities this summer. Go here to donate money, offer opportunities, or (if you’re a student) apply for work.
5. SUPPORT INDIVIDUAL TEACHERS
Educators around the country are continuing to post their specific classroom needs online at Donors Choose. You can find local teachers’ requests here.
7. SUPPORT THE FREE LIBRARY OF PHILADELPHIA
Mayor Kenney’s $184 million anti-violence strategy includes a much-needed $10.4 million funding bump for the Free Library of Philadelphia. Each of our 55 libraries is an essential resource for Philly students, not just for books, research and technology, but also as a safe place to be when school is out. With more funding, the Library could hire more staff and expand their hours — maybe even resume seven-day-a-week schedules.
The Library’s summer program, Summer of Wonder: Everyone. Everywhere. includes free writing sessions, culinary lessons, story times, and college and career prep for teens, through August 12 (and August 31, virtually). Stop by your local library to ask about ways to participate for all ages.
For students seeking to fulfill community service hours, the Free Library of Philadelphia offers a skill-minded and varied ways to satisfy the requirement for ages 14 and up. Additionally, consider donating to your local library here.
8. ADVOCATE FOR SAFER BUILDINGS
While you’re at it, says Franklin Learning Center teacher Jessica Way, demand politicians treat schools like the frontlines in the battle against Covid and teachers like frontline workers — who need buildings that are safe, healthy and clean.
Even before the pandemic, our school facilities were plagued with environmental crises that displaced and disrupted the academic year and jeopardized public health. “We’re still fighting for lead and asbestos abatement,” Way says. “With the increased building staff needed to maintain clean schools during the pandemic, let’s tackle some of these ongoing environmental issues as well.”
9. TELL TEENS TO VOTE!
The best way for young people to ensure our elected officials are listening to their educational needs? By casting a ballot.
Vote That Jawn, the local grassroots initiative spearheaded by author / playwright / Penn professor Lorene Cary and a team of students, is determined to get 10,000 first-time voters to register and vote in 2020. Show them how easy it is as VoteThatJawn.com.
10. SPEAK UP
The District’s parent and guardian survey is a vital communication tool for families with school-age students. Be sure to complete it annually and honestly.
You can attend Philadelphia School Board meetings in person or virtually. Before you go, if you have something to say, be sure to register to speak at a meeting. Email the School Board for additional info.
11. DONATE UNIFORMS AND SCHOOL SUPPLIES
The Philadelphia School District mandates uniforms for all students in grades K-12. School uniforms are an attempt to level the playing field and limit distraction. However, if a student fails to abide by the schools’ dress code, they may be subject to disciplinary actions. You can help every student have access to clean and appropriate uniforms.
Cradles to Crayons collects donations of everything from uniforms to school supplies for ages zero to 12. The Philly-born organization also offers a kid-friendly volunteer environment where families can help out at the warehouse, by sorting, packing, and quality checking donations. For more information on kid-friendly volunteer opportunities visit here!
Additionally, if you feel strongly about the enforcement or doing away with a uniform policy, contact your school board and let them know.
12. SHARE YOUR SKILLS
Jimenez points out that many teachers would welcome parents or community members to share their passions and skills with (virtual) classrooms. “Put yourself out there, reach out to teachers, and get involved,” he says.
Are you a scientist who can make a guest appearance to spice up a high school chem class? A musician who can drop into virtual band rehearsal? A Philly-phile who can teach a 4th grade history lesson on the region? Raise your hand — teachers — and students—will thank you.
13. DON’T OVERLOOK PARA EDUCATORS
The School District of Philadelphia employs 2,500 para educators, who are in schools to support our most vulnerable students — like immigrants, those with special needs and those for whom English is a second language.
Philly welcomes “paras,” as they’re known, into the Teachers Union, and they do have contracts — but their pay is dismal: They start at $15,000 a year, and max out at $30,000.
Citizen 2021 Integrity Icon Leah Wood, a teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, leads the local grassroots Para Power initiative and says that many paras work second and third jobs, and struggle to pay their bills or support their families. Para Power has started a relief fund to help support paras in need, and welcomes more voices calling on City Council and the School District for higher wages, more professional development, and more tech support (many paras are currently using Google Classroom on their phones, because they don’t have access to a laptop). Donate here.
14. FEED HUNGRY STUDENTS
Summer months mean an increase in already desperate food insecurity for Philly students. Free breakfasts and lunches that all Philly public and charter schools provide end. The School District’s free summer meals program only goes so far, lasting from June 27 to August 12 and requiring families to get to select schools for weekly pickups. Philadelphia Parks & Rec also pitches in on more than 200 blocks through its PlayStreets program.
To help Philadelphia kids and their families access healthy foods, check out our guide to fighting food insecurity.
15. MAKE WI-FI UNIVERSAL
The School District of Philadelphia distributed Chromebooks to all students during Covid and purchased 2,500 mobile hotspots through a state grant. School-provided laptops have become an essential part of student life. Connectivity is a lifeline.
“This is a civil rights issue,” says Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools. “We have a systemic, structural barrier for thousands of children to access education. This is an opportunity to fundamentally disrupt the inequity that occurs every day and is only being further highlighted by the pandemic.”
MORE “HOW TO HELP” RESOURCES FROM THE CITIZENKingsley Elementary School 2016, Photo by Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park via Flickr