This September is very strange. There is no “back to school” energy in my house. My youngest child graduated high school last spring. With three children, there were four pre-Ks, three grade schools, five high schools, and three districts in two counties, mostly public and a bit Catholic. All of this so they can now create the lives they want.
Navigating the education journey together means observing the world as it is, asking questions, managing conflicts, and learning resilience — all very valuable future-ready skills.
For my family, that navigation began in 2000 with a realtor who did not know the name of the Queen Village public school. Since then, that neighborhood has become a mecca for families. People often ask me about specific schools or issues. But things change rapidly, and the decision about schooling is personal.
This is a gargantuan district in a poor city making tough choices with limited resources. Wealthier, educated parents are often most vocal, but do not belong at the front of the line.
That said, here are the top five things learned along the way:
1. Beware of politicians who want to “Fix the Schools.”
They are often exploiting parents’ anxieties or pandering to unions. Local politicians have limited ability to “fix the schools.” It is hard to fathom, but the School District of Philadelphia is a massive operation. It has a $4 billion dollar budget, which is much larger than the budget for the entire City of Pittsburgh.
Philly schools serve about 200,000, mostly poor, children, in 316 schools. For example, the recent issues about air conditioning are frustrating but things are never as simple as Twitter wants them to be. The facilities planning is created by people with construction expertise, and it is complicated by aging buildings. The supply chain details and labor shortages are real.
Aggravating? Yes. This is a gargantuan district in a poor city making tough choices with limited resources. Wealthier, educated parents are often most vocal, but do not belong at the front of the line.
The Pennsylvania state funding formula now provides about half of the funding; the other half is from the City. Recent reforms in the formula took decades of activism, and there is still a lawsuit pending. According to a recent report from Pew entitled “How Property is Taxed in Philadelphia,” local property tax revenues totalled $1.6 billion dollars in 2021. Fifty-five percent goes to schools, along with a hodgepodge of smaller sources.
If local politicians want to “fix the schools,” reform Philadelphia’s tax structure. In the U.S., property taxes are the most reliable way to fund schools, but they are also a politically treacherous third rail, complicated by the state’s uniformity clause. Read the aforementioned Pew Trust report to learn more.
2. Obviously, parenting matters.
The top determinants of a child’s academic success are family factors. Yet, many parents are anxious because the media constantly shows what is wrong with city schools.
The myth-busting book Freakonomics has a chapter about parenting. It helped me find some calm about schools. The children of educated moms are very likely to achieve. The work ethic, conversations and curiosity at home are key. Even then, nurturing has its limits.
My children, so genetically alike, are very different. Each child’s personality, interests and ability are big drivers. Ultimately, self-awareness and self-efficacy for lifelong learning are more critical than grades or test scores. When my children examined why their D or F happened, and then adjusted for it? That process was more valuable than getting the A.
3. Urban life imparts real skills.
During especially egregious budget cuts, and for personal and professional reasons, we briefly lived in the suburbs. Two of my children attended suburban schools, one child stayed in a Philadelphia public school and rode regional rail to attend eighth grade. It was a 14-month learning experience. Most of all, we learned that we prefer city life.
The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley is a great book that discusses education policy and outcomes. One analysis found that the most important thing a parent can do to build critical thinking skills for their children is to discuss current events. Urban life is rich fodder for children to gain skills, examine problems and debate strategies. The city is a living classroom for resilience and coping skills.
4. School principal is the hardest job in the city.
It does take a few years to master the role, but then a good principal will retain top teachers and create a positive school culture. Hopefully, the new superintendent maintains and strengthens pipelines so well-trained talent works in every principal’s office.
Principals are also the buffer between the child and the district bureaucracy. A principal will be tempted to do whatever the bureaucracy wants so they can advance their career. Principals need support and encouragement to choose what is best for the students first and deal with bureaucracy later.
The best scenario for children is when parents, teachers and principals are united. In public schools, start or join a School Advisory Council to build a strong learning community. Another simple tactic is to start every school year with a positive conversation with the teacher and principal. It will then be easier to discuss problems and solve them together. As children reach middle school, teach them to voice and solve issues themselves.
5. Be mindful of unintended consequences.
Years ago, when my now-20-something was in first grade, a few of us started a school fundraiser. The community has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars since then. Realtors highlight the school to sell homes. Rents, property values, and taxes all rose.
Classrooms became crowded, then a lottery for kindergarten. The school is now less racially and economically diverse. The best intentions led to hard lessons about privilege and priorities.
Anne is the Principal and Founder of A-Gemm Consulting and Certified Collaboration Architect™. She is a pragmatic futurist. As Director of Special Initiatives at the City of Philadelphia, PA, she led the future of work policy response with many entities. In 2016, she led the equitable design of the PHL-PreK program. She taught high school history for nine years in the School District of Philadelphia.