Guest Column | Penn can save Philly’s schools
September 10, 2013, 4:38 pm · Updated September 10, 2013, 11:54 pm·
Philadelphia is now enduring one of the greatest education crises in American history, and yet Penn, the city’s preeminent school of higher learning, isn’t helping. But it must.
In May, the School District of Philadelphia adopted a budget that cut everything: 3,800 employees (later reduced), including many teachers and vice principals, 24 schools, many extracurriculars and most guidance counselors.
When schools opened this Monday, the budget cuts became real: Classes crammed with as many as 40 students sometimes. Teachers running out of their allotment of paper. A college advisor having to cover the applications of students in six schools.
Chaos reigned. Teaching and learning were impossible. The college process was in shambles.
The onus likely doesn’t fall on Penn to help here — it’s questionable whether an institution needs to devote itself to another just because they share a city (especially when Penn pays $100 million in wages and taxes to the city).
Students and professors may be preoccupied by their own work, but that is not necessarily solipsistic. Students’ time is limited at Penn, and they’re enrolled here at great cost to learn. Professors’ pursuit of knowledge for the rest of us may justify their detachment from the world.
There’s also the charter school question. Part of the school district’s problem is that 30 percent of the budget now goes to charter schools. You may think charters need to win out before education can truly be reformed. Maybe you’re right and maybe not, but it doesn’t matter because this isn’t an abstract or political question.
It’s a question of kids, many of whom live unstable lives, and how they’re going to survive this new rockiness — an environment conducive to them losing interest in education, falling behind and then dismissing school entirely, maybe forever. And that’s the rub. Penn may not be ethically obligated to help, but it sure as hell should here because of what’s at stake.
Penn’s current outreach won’t help. I tutored at a Philly high school as part of an academically-based community service course, with very limited results. Penn’s continued support of the Penn Alexander School and the student-led West Philadelphia Tutoring Project are both admirable, but insufficient.
What we need here is something big. Penn administrators love to talk about how engaged the school is with the city — how it not only takes from it but gives back. President Gutmann: Prove it.
Screw the class schedule as it stands. Reconfigure it if you must, but send students en masse into the public schools to volunteer. The schools need administrators, assistants and a million other professionals they can’t afford. Penn can provide volunteer student labor for jobs that don’t require teaching certificates and professors for those that do. Yeah, that’s right: Let’s have our professors teach in public schools.
If schools need space, let them use our lecture halls when they’re empty (probably only helpful for the schools nearby, but still). Get money from Penn donors to back up the manpower. Harness the industrious campus you’ve cultivated to save the education of the students of tomorrow.
Just think what this could be.
Gabe Oppenheim is a 2009 College graduate and a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist.