Schools May Be a Battleground in Philadelphia, But These Parents and Activists Aren't Scared of the Fight
BY Tre Johnson September 13, 2017
When the transformation of 13th Street was proposed by a New York developer named Tony Goldman, many balked at his vision of a new Philadelphia. The neighborhood was a stereotypically seedy stretch of downtown long home to strip clubs, palm readers and illicit night activity. Starting in earnest in 2000, Goldman believed that the potential for Philadelphia rested in the revitalization of this particular corridor, taking it from an urban underbelly to a destination to be known as “the Paris of the Northeast.” His vision seemed both ridiculous and unwanted by many who saw Philadelphia stuck in an exhaustive fight with itself over the concept of moving forward. Slowly, 13th Street took on a new face and feel. As more restaurants, boutiques and businesses became the norm of the neighborhood, the corridor became a destination instead of destitute. Locals and out-of-towners walked the streets at all hours, shopping, eating and drinking at some of the city’s trendiest establishments. By the time Goldman passed away from heart failure in 2012, it wasn’t quite Paris—but it was a promising new Philadelphia. It’s hard to trace all the economic tendrils from 13th Street to the surrounding Center City residential neighborhoods, but it’s not hard to see the cultural lines. 13th Street was an anchor for changing the conversation and perception of Philadelphia, occurring during the same period that the city gradually added population to the Center City core. While the city had been losing population as families and individuals chose the nearby suburban oases of Cherry Hill, Lower Merion and Bryn Mawr, the trend reversed and the city experienced a population growth of 80,000 new residents from 2006 to present. This change has made all the difference to many locals. The Philadelphia story is now one of new trends. White flight is reversing, class stratification is happening more, and housing and [pullquote position="left"]schools have become a hotly-contested battleground as populations, interests and families clash—intentionally and unintentionally. A burgeoning private sector pushes the city forward as a whole, but at the neighborhood level, there’s a question about how to manage change to benefit all. It’s here that the Friends of Neighborhood Education (FONE), a cross-section, cross-city network of Philadelphians leaning in to provide their local schools with partnership, resources and clout, find themselves trying to negotiate it all.
The Story of IvyPerhaps best signifying all of these trends is Ivy Olesh and the organization that grew out of her desire to become an active, invested resident in the city. Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Ivy moved to Philadelphia in 2001 and the Graduate Hospital neighborhood in Center City corridor in 2006. Six years earlier, as Tony Goldman’s 13th Street dream began taking shape, Graduate Hospital’s population comprised 7,800 African-Americans. By 2014 that same population tumbled to 3,450, and the number of White residents in the neighborhood tripled. Graduate Hospital was the starkest gentrification in all of Philadelphia, and as Ivy tracked the ever-changing shifts in her neighborhood, she noticed that they were largely on the periphery. As a White, female outsider who at the time had no kids, Ivy spent much of her earlier years in the neighborhood building relationships. In one household in particular, she met a child who was about to become a kindergartener at Chester Arthur Elementary, one of Graduate Hospital’s neighborhood schools. She started small. When you hear Ivy talk about building things—credibility, partnerships, FONE itself—it’s constantly about starting small, being deliberate and taking the miscues and errors in stride. Before spending time inside the school, Ivy had heard some city district school buzzwords from others: chaotic, unwelcoming, potentially unsafe. But what she found in Chester Arthur and its then-school leader Renee Musgrove didn’t match any of that. The first challenge was when Ivy showed up to see if she could be of any help. “She (Principal Musgrove) was confused,” Ivy remembers with a smile, “she didn’t get the idea that I was interested as a resident, without kids or an agenda; that I just wanted to help.” Among the ways Ivy proposed helping was to get the school to think about becoming more customer-service oriented—deepening the value of engaging families (current or prospective) on their interests, issues and ideas. In a city where there’s tremendous choice—Philadelphia has 84 charter schools, dozens of private schools and an equally robust number of Catholic schools—traditional schools like Arthur are forced to up their game in ways that sometimes feel foreign to the school’s way of doing things. There were also competing options in-district, like the socioeconomically diverse haven of Greenfield Elementary, a school that new families were setting their sights on due to its city-wide cachet. What Ivy saw increasingly, and distressingly, was that Arthur was losing ground and confidence not due to performance, but perception and brand. So she set out to focus on supporting the school in those areas during her free time. It started with getting the principal invested in building a broader range of responsive communications and relationships with residents in the surrounding community. From there, Ivy worked with parents and Principal Musgrove to soothe and engage the cross-section of existing Black families (who were dubious about the rapidly changing neighborhood), the incoming White families (who were either eager or dubious about Arthur’s potential) and the school staff. As a group of new residents coalesced around the school, Arthur began benefitting from their volunteerism and savvy as everything from tutoring services to a new playground arrived at their door. That steadfast support over time sparked something else—the need for this collection of volunteers to become something formal and stable. After their work began in earnest in 2009, Friends of Chester Arthur (FoCA) was created in 2010 as a neighborhood resource to provide supplementary funding, programmatic and classroom resource support to the school. When it was time for a principal transition in 2013, a selection committee was formed to include a teacher, a building union representative, a parent and a community member—Ivy. Together they played a pivotal part in selecting Kimberly Newman, the school’s current school leader.
The Story of SashaSince then, more and more networks have become activated around issues of gentrification in the city, and a new wave of parents and professionals are banding together to recommit to cities and schools. With this reinvestment comes new ideas and inspirations from a new set of civic players. Sasha Best is a resident who lives over in Riverwards, another section of Philadelphia that has undergone a series of redevelopment efforts. A transplant from New York City where she was a major player in the salon and beauty industry for nearly 20 years, she and her husband moved to Philadelphia to escape the hustle and expense of New York City. In time, with their children looming toward school-age, Sasha decided to get involved in Adaire, the nearby neighborhood school. Different than Chester Arthur across the city, Adaire is nearly 80 percent White, with a growing demographic of non-White students every year. Fishtown presents a different challenge as a long-standing White working class neighborhood that is slowly being transformed from barren warehouses to trendy restaurants, bars and boutiques. Sasha has leaned hard into Adaire’s community, working with the principal, school staff and families to tackle everything from culture resets to widening relationships amongst families, as well as addressing changing demographics with a diversity committee. Her belief runs deep in Adaire’s potential. So deep, in fact, that Sasha enlisted in Americorps and will serve as an Americorps VISTA representative for the school next year.
These Times Are ChangingChange happens in the strangest ways, and intentions don’t always mask awkward, contentious results. The FONE network is now a collection of over two dozen groups like these in Philadelphia: a phalanx of people from all walks of life supporting their local neighborhood public schools. The altruistic starting point, with Ivy focusing on Chester Arthur and her kindergartner neighbor (who is now preparing for high school) has become something bigger. It has also become something more political and necessary in a district with a looming $500 million deficit and an overall uneasy alliance with charter schools. That middle-class families are choosing city and district schools should be a boon for everyone involved. But the complications around resources, race and real estate means that even well-intentioned groups like those inside FONE have work to do besides figuring out how to infuse more resources into their local school. A new media fascination has framed school engagement as a trend akin to a new restaurant opening, and terms like “young professionals” and “transplants” continue to run tongue-in-cheek alongside conversations about “changing neighborhoods.” That cultural chasm exists inside the work—Black, Latinx and Asian, low-to-moderate income families trying to maintain political ground, housing and school seats alongside or against new, affluent White families. This dynamic is also part of a wider conversation about our cities. As interest is renewed in places like San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans and New York City’s outer boroughs, all sorts of renaissances occur, sometimes at once, sometimes in massive contradicting directions. The stories about gentrification ultimately come down to integration—of political power, residents, enrollment trends, resources and businesses. Education and schools aren’t cleanly compartmentalized in cities; nor are they untethered from wider considerations ranging from policing patterns to trash collections to business permits. FONE recognizes that their efforts won’t get any easier. Its core mission to support and uplift neighborhood schools through a combination of advocacy, partnerships and fundraising will likely always be there. But as the city’s neighborhoods continue the gentrification shift in race and class, maintaining that mission will be increasingly complex. FONE leaders like Ivy and Sasha seem aware of these challenges. In fact, FONE is taking steps to expand the community support ecosystem beyond gentrifying neighborhoods, such as forming alliances with organizations like PARENT POWER. The ongoing mission will not just be infusion but inclusion, with FONE as a microcosm of a city learning to balance co-mingling interests at the intersection of development, housing and schools. After all, Philadelphia doesn’t need to be Parisian to understand something the French say: “Autres temps, autres mœurs.” “Other times, other values,” the saying goes. Or perhaps more bluntly, “These times are changing.”
An original version of this post appeared on the 50CAN Blog as FONE a Friend.
Photo Courtesy of Friends of Chester Arthur.
Tre Johnson is a freelance writer on race, culture and politics. He's also an educator, advocate and part-time superhero. If you’ve been working in education or activism and would like to share your story, contact him at email@example.com.