Mayor Jim Kenney might be feeling all kinds of political heat—sans killer heat wave—when he’s home in Philly. But it was all passion and applause when he Amtrak’ed his way down to Washington, D.C. for an August convening of think tankers, policy wonks and like-minded reformers to talk up his city-wide Community Schools initiative.
It’s not something the Mayor talks about enough when in Philly—or, that he doesn’t really get the space to brag about when he’s busy battling over his beverage tax or haggling City Council over higher property taxes. The D.C.-based Center for American Progress (CAP), however, was interested enough to not only invite him to their recent conversation on community schools, but to headline him as keynote speaker. See his full speech here:
What the Mayor laid out in his community schools vision speech is, theoretically and anecdotally, sound. “Based on the success of community schools in other communities, I was inspired to expand the initiative in Philadelphia,” said Kenney, describing the first dozen schools in the School District that are now institutions for both academics and a wide range of activities and social services provided by city departments.
In these schools, city and social service agencies can bring parents together to discuss challenges in their neighborhoods; assess if there’s trouble at home and what’s needed to alleviate that; help students with food and clothing problems; and direct parents to job opportunities. Essentially, the schools serve as much more than classrooms—they are community access and wrap-around service pop-ups, central hubs of essential cultural, social and economic activity.
“Investing in student success will strengthen our economy and neighborhoods. But this process takes time,” added the Mayor. “In the meantime, our students and families need access to basic necessities, access to food, access to jobs. With 1 in 4 of our residents living in poverty, we can’t ask them to wait for those things.”
It’s a makes-sense kind of program the Mayor should earn plaudits for. Plus, this is a good moment for Kenney: Why not jump onto the LeBron James community school bandwagon as everyone falls in love with the iconic athlete’s investment in a brand new one for his hometown in Akron, Ohio? And it’s commendable that Kenney is head-on acknowledging citywide poverty and the need for this kind of initiative to tackle it.
But once you get past the executive summary, the Kenney Project falls prey to the usual inability to creatively expand and pay for it. Kenney could out-dribble LeBron by innovating Philly’s community school initiative into the envied national standard. Instead, it becomes just another talking point for the campaign checklist manifesto by the time we reach 2019.
Where’s The Data?
We’ve got a dozen schools transformed or repurposed over the past two years, but still no data yet generated to show what Philly is getting out of it. As well-timed and intentioned as Kenney’s CAP speech was, he still couldn’t offer numbers and only rattled off Lean on Me shorts of several schools, reportedly, showing signs of success. But how do we quantify that? Are student scores and other assessments on a noticeably upward trend? Are they safer? How many parents are getting jobs or benefiting from social services? At the moment, no one but maybe the Mayor’s office knows.
Here We Go Again: Taxes Will Cover It
If any Philly residents were in the audience, they would have started rolling their eyes once Kenney religiously heaped mountains of praise on his beloved beverage tax.
In continuing to pay for community schools—Kenney indicated a goal of 20 more over five years—he remarked that “[w]e’re ready to take on this additional responsibility if we have to.” But when Kenney mentions paying for stuff, Philly residents—rightfully so—get nervous.
Does Philly even have the adequate or existing school infrastructure to support an ambitious community school initiative? Indeed, that was the first question Kenney got from the audience after delivering his remarks. But he didn’t offer much confidence that he had any handle on the issue.
That’s when he went on to describe an itemized list of, yes, more taxes, from the beverage tax (mentioned several times) to the need for a higher property tax—leaving out, of course, his controversial resistance to the construction tax and his unwillingness, thus far, to overhaul Philly’s tax abatement. And, so, a city he acknowledges is saddled with rampant poverty finds itself in a situation where the families who have students in community schools are conflicted on whether or not they’re truly benefiting from them if the city keeps taxing them disproportionately to pay for it.
Nothing wrong with taxes, philosophically—but, residents are getting increasingly agitated that they’re the only ones expected to help with those investments. This is where Kenney could find an opening to resurrect PILOTS: Payments in Lieu of Taxes on the city’s “ed and med” institutions. Yeah, whatever happened to that?
Philadelphia is a world-class center of some of the most prominent, storied and well-endowed educational, medical and research institutions. It houses an Ivy League university within city boundaries, as well as blocks upon endless blocks of other major higher education institutions and hospital campuses. These seem like prime partners for the community schools effort, for both programmatic and academic support, as well as funding and other resources. Why not make the public argument for how Penn, Temple, Drexel and others can pitch in directly? Harvard and Boston University do it for arch urban nemesis Boston to the tune of an estimated $14 million in combined PILOTS annually—yet, all we can brag about is how we bested their football team.
And as we’re branding this as a place for large corporations to do business, how much are we asking them to invest?
C’mon Mayor—Only 12 Out Of 200?
You also get the sense that community schools aren’t spreading as fast in Philly as they should. City Hall is not only stifled by a lack of creativity, it rarely moves with any sense of urgency. We’ve only seen 12 schools over two years, and the second cohort only produced three (one of them is this author’s alma mater Logan Elementary). Kenney is aiming conservatively for only 20 more schools over five years—which translates into just 4 schools per year. Yet, last we checked there are 200 schools throughout Philly, and most of them in need of immediate attention. When we discussed it on WURD’s “Reality Check,” a few listeners called in complaining that there were just too few schools in the initiative so far to make a difference.
If the model is working that well, can’t the city develop a better plug-and-play model that can be applied to all schools at once? Where exactly is the sense of excitement and urgency?
Can This Really Work Considering Philly’s Aging Schools?
If there is anything to call “deplorable,” it’s the physical state of Philly’s schools. More than 80 percent of them were built before the federal 1978 ban on lead took effect, and there’s a wide range of problems the Philadelphia Inquirer rightly put on blast, from leaded paint to asbestos to asthma hazards. Bad enough nearly 3,000 Philadelphia kids (three times the number in Flint, Michigan) are diagnosed with lead poisoning every year from old homes, but then they find themselves forced into toxic school buildings for double the dose of contamination.
Kenney could out-dribble LeBron by innovating Philly’s community school initiative into the envied national standard. Instead, it becomes just another talking point for the campaign checklist manifesto by the time we reach 2019.
Does Philly even have the adequate or existing school infrastructure to support an ambitious community school initiative (which probably explains the slow pace)? Indeed, that was the first question Kenney got from the audience after delivering his remarks. But he didn’t offer much confidence that he had any handle on the issue.
“We’ve been in close contact with [Superintendent] Hite and we’re aware of the $5 billion worth of infrastructure needs,” nodded Kenney as he admitted to the lead, poisoned drinking water and HVAC issues. “We’re addressing those issues. We have the ability to use city resources to help fund these efforts.”
Which ends up back to the tax question, of course. Yet, again, if the community schools initiative is about partnerships, why not lead a Philadelphia public-private partnership Marshall Plan to save the schools, particularly since the Mayor had once touted a “Services in Lieu of Taxes” (or SILOTS) proposal?
Models Outside The Box
And, lastly, can’t community schools also serve as incubators for new emerging educational models in the 21st century?
There was no mention of blended learning or online learning models for either the Philadelphia community schools (or any schools for that matter, based on the following panel discussion), even as public schools continue to struggle, parents grow increasingly interested in alternatives such as home schooling and communities grapple with safety issues resulting from gangs, guns and bullying. In addition, with public schools still largely stuck in Industrial Revolution era classroom formats, there is legitimate worry American kids—and, especially for that matter, Philly kids—aren’t really learning or achieving critical intellectual skills as they should.
If community schools are presenting tailored and individualized approaches to learning, why not be the first major city to consider, mention and leverage blended learning models? And how seriously are these new community schools improving student critical thinking abilities?
Kenney seemed a little dismissive when asked about it. “Our community school model right now is not dealing with academics; it’s dealing with daily needs,” he offered. “I leave it to the educators to figure out what the academic needs should be.” Considering the performance of those educators thus far, though, the Mayor might want to delve a bit deeper into that.
Charles D. Ellison is Executive Producer and Host of “Reality Check,” which airs Monday-Thursday, 4-7 p.m. on WURD Radio (96.1FM/900AM). Check out The Citizen’s weekly segment on his show every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Ellison is also Principal of B|E Strategy, and the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune. Catch him if you can @ellisonreport on Twitter.