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Newly unionized workers put up a banner at Hillel. Credit: Caroline Brand

Penn is surrounded by one of the worst public school districts in the country.

Recent budget cuts and a reduction in federal grants have left the district with a budget deficit of more than $300 million. Young students — some just a few blocks from our campus — are paying the price.

A mere 197 nurses care for over 200,000 children, with many schools lacking a full-time nurse. Last month, a 12-year-old died from an asthma attack shortly after the school day ended. Her elementary school did not have a nurse on duty that day, so no one properly diagnosed or treated her.

Many classrooms don’t have textbooks or enough desks for every student to be able to sit down.

More than half of the district’s schools — representing a population of 48,000 students — share 16 counselors, each managing a caseload of approximately 3,000 students across multiple schools.

These examples represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Certainly a few hundred million dollars would be helpful. The teacher furlough could be ended, thereby reducing class sizes, and necessities such as books and air conditioning units could be purchased for every classroom.

But realistically, a massive influx of funds isn’t going to happen in the short-term. A more practical and immediate solution is the infusion of unpaid human capital into Philadelphia schools, namely an arsenal of Penn students.

A lack of response to the education crisis in Philadelphia by the University would be disappointing, to say the least. Although one could argue that what happens in Philadelphia schools is not the responsibility of the University, Penn’s failure to take action in this situation seems akin to a profitable supermarket chain unwilling to donate goods after a nearby region is devastated by a natural disaster.

Of course, there are hundreds of students involved in community service, many focusing on urban schools. The problem is that although these students do admirable and impactful work, the crisis confronting Philadelphia is larger than our isolated efforts. We need 10,000 students united against the crisis. We need a university that instills a culture of service in everyone.

One solution might be to require all undergraduates to volunteer a certain number of hours in public schools in order to graduate. However, some hate working with children, while others simply have no interest in education. Furthermore, a policy like this one could be loaded with complications and technicalities, from falsifying volunteer hours to creating a system that could coordinate this operation.

Instead, a more streamlined and flexible solution is to require all undergraduate students to take an academically based community service course.

Although we have many graduation requirements, none of them touch on social impact. As a humanities major, I question why I need to take a three-hour per week physical world class but am not asked to engage with the community whatsoever. I also question the effectiveness of taking a class for the “Cultural Diversity in the United States” requirement, but reading only dense academic texts about the subject and never engaging with people outside of our ivory tower.

Last year, only 1,357 students enrolled in ABCS courses. Undoubtedly, the program would need to be expanded. Additionally, to combat the Philadelphia school district crisis specifically, Penn should increase the number of education-related ABCS courses, perhaps with specific themes that could provide an effective and engaging way to link our majors with this requirement.

For example, an urban education course with a focus on health in schools could provide an avenue for Nursing students to learn about children’s health while also volunteering as nurses in schools that cannot afford one full-time.

Although the details of this plan need to be ironed out, it would certainly be a welcome indication that the University is taking action to confront a problem that plagues the entire next generation of our neighbors.

Last week, a senior at Sayre High School told me that she had just started learning math that year. Other Penn mentors have shared stories with me about students in fourth and fifth grade who cannot read.

For now, it is easy to remain ensconced in the Radian or the high rises, staring down at a decaying West Philadelphia and the people outside of Chipotle who always ask if anyone can spare some change. Hopefully during our time at Penn, we will learn not to draw the blinds.

Caroline Brand is a College senior from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. You can email her at or follow her at @CBrand19. “A Brand You Can Trust” appears every other Tuesday.

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