Last week, as teachers headed back into their classrooms, the news was… not great. Covid is surging, because of Delta and the unvaccinated. Students are stressed and scared. Teachers are stressed, scared and (in some cases) angry. Parents are worried and baffled by what’s to come.
In other words, it’s both a highly unusual—and in many ways highly typical—new start to the school year in Philadelphia. There is a lot of work to do to help children recover from the physical, emotional and academic ravages of Covid-19—not least the achievement gap that has widened between well-off and less well-off students because of virtual learning (or not).
MORE RESOURCES FOR HELPING STUDENTS IN PHILLY
Every year, we encourage all Philadelphians, whether parents or not, to do their part to help our young people succeed. This year, it’s imperative. Their future—our future—depends on it.
Here are some ways to help …
No, everything is definitely not peachy; yes, this year is starting out even more confusing and frustrating than last year. But also: The kids are back in school, with professional teachers, at desks (mostly) made for learning—that’s something to be thankful for. There’s a lot of hard work ahead. Let’s start by helping everyone find the joy in learning.
Get vaxxed—not just you, also your children
The school board finally voted on a vaccine mandate for all school staff and volunteers, but haven’t yet issued one for students over 12 who qualify to get immunized against Covid-19. That’s up to parents. As Superintendent Bill Hite told parents in announcing his support for the mandate and encouraging everyone to get vaxxed: “The science is clear: Covid-19 vaccines work.” He pointed to a study done in Philly schools as proof.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the school district have partnered for months to hold vaccine clinics around the city. If you’re a public school parent, you can sign up for news from the school district on its parent portal, to find out when the next one is being held, or find City of Philadelphia Vaccine Clinic here.
Read, give books, start a library
In the last pre-pandemic school year, only 45 percent of Philly kindergarten through second grade students were reading at grade level, and only one-third were considered proficient or advanced by the end of third grade. The pandemic has put many students even more behind. The district is unrolling a new reading curriculum that will hopefully put more kids on the right track. In the meantime, here are some ways we can all help, including:
- Become a Philly Reading Coach, reading with young students once a week.
- Donate to or volunteer with literacy programs like Mighty Writers or TreeHouse Books.
- Start a Little Free Library in your neighborhood.
Be patient with your young people…
Many, many young people are experiencing depression and anxiety from more than a year of social isolation; some are also experiencing grief over loved ones who have died or become seriously ill. That’s not going away with the ring of the bell this morning.
“Pushing students who are not excited about being in school, or are unmotivated when they get home, is not going to help,” says Amy Edelstein, founder of Inner Strength Foundation, which provides mindfulness curricula to the district. “We have to allow them to process what they’ve been through. They won’t catch up academically if emotionally they are not allowed that.”
Edelstein suggests taking or sending kids out for a walk, playing games together, listening to music, just being silly—anything that lets them relax before taking on more work.
…and also with their teachers
Many parents had a hellish last school year. But teachers? They had it even worse. Summer felt shockingly short, and as it seems to be every year, this one is starting out with drama, fear and some anguish. Give them time to settle in before launching complaints—and encourage your children to do the same. Even better: Reach out to see how you might help, or even just to let them know you appreciate that they’re there. “Take care of the caretakers as much as you can,” says Maureen Gallagher Boland, a teacher at Parkway Center City Middle College. “By extension, you will be helping Philadelphia’s children.”
Help kids get to school safely
Kids are going back to school in the midst of an ongoing gun violence crisis—for some, literally in the midst of it. The City’s plan to ensure their safety includes working with SEPTA and town watch services to increase protection before and after school and putting school resource officers outside during arrival and dismissal.
Or, donate to YEAH Philly (Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout), an anti-violence youth group in West Philly, which has been offering Lyft rides for teens who are nervous to take public transit. According to this piece in Plan Philly, YEAH has provided about 20 rides per day, at a cost of $12,000 this year—and that is expected to increase when school starts.
Go to meetings
The relatively new school board is tasked with overseeing the finances, health, safety and academic programming of schools and the district, as well as the performance of Superintendent Bill Hite. In other words: They make the decisions that affect 120,000 children in the city of Philadelphia. You don’t have to be a parent or teacher to know how important this is. Their meetings are open by law, and open to citizen comment, now limited to 30 people per meeting, speaking for two minutes each. (You’ll have to navigate their system through their website, which also takes some patience.) For now anyway, the meetings are remote or hybrid, so you don’t even have to leave the house to attend. Find their schedule and agendas here.
The school district’s back-to-school bus tour in August brought free backpacks and other supplies to neighborhoods around the city. Cradles to Crayons is doing even more: Through its Ready to Learn program, the nonprofit aims to supply 50,000 local students with backpacks full of school supplies. $20 supports one student; $500 covers a classroom. Donate here.
Teachers spend nearly $500 a year out of pocket on their classrooms—but still, many don’t have what they need to ensure a successful school year. You can help by searching for Philadelphia on Donors Choose, a platform that lets you fund teacher projects ranging from book supplies, to technology, art, music and snacks.
Adopt a school
Or go big and adopt a school through the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, with a three-year, $30,000 commitment that can also include volunteer opportunities for your employees.
For what? Pick an issue: fair school funding; more equity in magnet school admissions; charter school accountability; safer school buildings; more responsiveness from leadership. It’s not enough these days to just send your kids to school; those who can also need to ensure all children are attending fair, well-resourced, healthy schools with good prospects.
Support educational organizations supplementing out of school learning
There are so many, doing so many great things. See a list of several here.
Since the pandemic hit, the school district has worked with Philabundance and Share Food Program to ensure public school families have access to free food. Now that they’re back in school, students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch. But, Office of Children and Families Director Cynthia Figueroa says, the district still plans to provide food to families in need through distribution centers and community schools. The best way to help? Donate to Philabundance or Share Food Program.
Encourage physical exercise
Most younger students in Philadelphia have recess, but even older students need physical activity to keep them healthy, alert and learning. “Exercise releases positive endorphins, oxygenates the brain and rest of the body,” Edelstein says. Volunteer, donate or sign your child up for Students Run Philly Style, Girls On The Run Philly or other youth sports programs in the city—both free to students at several schools; find free exercise programs on the web; take advantage of a free membership for 7th graders and financial assistance for others with low-income at a local YMCA; or just throw an afternoon dance party like no one’s watching.
Join your school’s Home & School Association
If you’re a parent, to help raise money and support school staff and teachers.
Or, find or start a Friends of group for your neighborhood school
Especially if you’re not a parent, to bring a community perspective to school success.
Always vote, with the needs of schools, students and children in mind. Policies that benefit families benefit all residents, and we need elected officials who appreciate that.
…and help young people vote, too
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Header photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash