#parent | #kids | How to rebuild toxic public schools in Philly

But in D.C., safe schools came through years of vigorous, often contentious advocacy, first by parents who built school modernization into a powerful political cause and then by local officials who made implementation a top city priority.

Parents, teachers, and community activists in Philadelphia say they would be happy to collaborate with school and city officials to follow a similar path as they struggle to reduce hazards in aging, outdated school buildings that are now being tested again by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Every model has some issues, but it is a successful model, and one to be emulated,” said Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist for Philadelphia’s teachers union. “Putting together the unions and the public side, and following this D.C. model, I think would be a very rewarding thing to do. That is, to think about, how do you create these structures and these approaches to move forward?”

But Roseman, who serves on the board of the 21st Century School Fund, and other advocates say it could be a while before Philadelphia gets to the point Washington reached in the early 2000s, when its building program got going in earnest.

The city and state are unwilling or unable to fund comprehensive school modernization, and the district, the union says, shows little interest in sharing information or decision-making power with the community.

Calvin Coolidge High School was one of the most recent Washington DC schools to be renovated, reopening its doors in August 2019. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

“It’s really disheartening, because in a city like Philadelphia, there are so many smart and talented people who are clamoring to offer their help and assistance to fix these problems,” said David Masur, a public school parent who helps run the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, a coalition of community groups. “You have parents who just want to roll up their sleeves and help in any way. There’s this all-hands-on-deck attitude. And the district just keeps everybody at arm’s length. They won’t really give stakeholders a seat at the table.”

The district’s Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil defended the district’s community outreach efforts, citing its recent creation of an Environmental Advocacy Council whose members include school parents from across the city.

“The School District of Philadelphia appreciates all community advocacy in support of providing all students with a healthy, and welcoming learning environment,” he said in an email. “As such, we want to ensure that the environmental work and processes we continue to implement are completed with fidelity and transparency.”

‘No, you have to have a plan’

Activists in Washington’s school community say one of the key factors that helped the city buck the national trend of school facility neglect was the dedication of parents who persistently demanded improvements over many years, creating a movement that outlasted superintendents, mayors, and economic and political upheavals.

In the 1980s, families began agitating over many problems in the cash-strapped D.C. district, including its crumbling buildings. With funding from charitable foundations, a group called Parents United hired staff and, in 1992, sued over rampant fire code violations, forcing the district officials to launch the first of several “blitzes” of emergency repairs. The buildings had a familiar litany of problems — asbestos, lead paint, lead in drinking water, leaky roofs — which the district slowly tried to address.

The neighborhood surrounding Calvin Coolidge High School
The neighborhood surrounding Calvin Coolidge High School on March 13, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Another essential step was the creation of the district’s first Master Facilities Plan. The city was in the depths of a severe financial crisis in the mid-1990s and planning to close some under-enrolled schools. Parents took advantage of the situation to band together and demand the district create a plan to overhaul its buildings.

“They had made a strategic mistake in that they put 40 schools on the closing list and said, ‘OK, community’ — they thought they were really clever — ‘community, you go back and decide which 10 we’re going to close.’ And we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, these guys are crazy.’ So we all got together and said ‘no,’” recalled one of the parents, Mary Filardo. “We had 40 neighborhoods then that we could organize, not 10. So we had a big meeting and basically said, no, you have to have a plan.”

The D.C. Board of Education and the City Council both passed resolutions calling for a master plan, but did not actually create one. So Filardo and other parents went solo and recruited a planner who had worked for the New York City schools. Together, they created a document that laid out the district’s long-range needs, priorities, and resources in preparation for the day when the city could finally afford to fund them.

Filardo is now executive director of the 21st Century School Fund and a national expert on school facility issues, but she got her start as an activist parent. After the master plan was in place, she spearheaded a landmark project to rebuild her kids’ school, Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. The Ford Foundation gave her group funding for a feasibility study and the district eventually agreed to their proposal to sell off part of the property for housing development. The project revenues funded a new school building, which opened in 2001.

After that first success, the Board of Education agreed to build a few more schools. At the same time, the city’s population was increasing for the first time since the 1960s and its finances improved.

The science labs at Cardozo High School
The science labs were one of many aspects of Cardozo High School to receive an upgrade as a result of the school’s 2011 modernization. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

In 2006, the city council approved a commercial property transfer tax to fund school construction projects. Councilman Adrian Fenty, who led the campaign for a dedicated funding source, was then elected mayor, took direct control of the district, and pressed for quicker modernization of more schools.

Fenty harnessed a political movement for school modernization that parents had been building up for more than a decade, said Kathy Patterson, a public school parent and 12-year councilmember who worked to win approval of the program.

Fenty “was someone who knew how to mobilize a community,” said Patterson, who is now the District of Columbia Auditor. “He was the one who took the TV stations around to some of the dilapidated schools and really helped work with the community groups to build public awareness. Night after night on the TV news, seeing crumbling buildings and water coming through ceilings and things like that — I think that really was a pressure tactic that ultimately was successful.”

Students play basketball in the Cardozo High School
Students play basketball in the Cardozo High School gym on March 12, 2020. The gymnasium was added to the school during its 2011 renovation, which was made possible by Washington DC’s School Modernization Finance Act of 2006. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Filardo said she, Patterson, and other parents were able to make change happen by taking ownership of the process, creating a concrete modernization plan, and constantly working to make the district transparent and accountable.

“It wasn’t that the school system had a problem with its bad facilities. It’s that we, the community in Washington D.C., had a problem with our school buildings, and it was a big problem. We wanted to be a part of the solution because it was our problem,” she said. “And for the longest time, the school system, it’s like they were trying to hide the problem.”

She pointed to the district’s decision to shut off hundreds of drinking fountains at one point after high lead levels were detected in the schools’ drinking water.

“I said to the head of facilities at the time, ‘So tell people, why do we have lead? We’ve got these ancient schools, we’ve got lead pipes all over them, and we need to modernize the schools to get the lead out.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I don’t want to tell them that.’ I’m like, why not?” Filardo recalled.

“They were acting like, ‘Oh no, it’s our problem,’ the lead. And it was like, no, it’s all of our problem, the lead. And you will not get it fixed unless we are all working to solve this problem. And that to me is the fundamental problem, where the schools have this paternalistic notion that ‘We’re doing this for you,’ and so leave us alone and we’ll get it right and we’re going to do it as well as anybody can. It’s just wrong.”

A projected image of the modernized West Elementary is shown outside of the school's construction area
A projected image of the modernized West Elementary is shown outside of the school’s construction area on March 13, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

‘Zero transparency’

In Philadelphia, problems with lead-tainted water galvanized a new generation of parent activists around health and safety issues. In 2016, after the city was accused of failing to warn residents of high lead levels in tap water, parents and community groups worked with City Councilmember Helen Gym and others to pass laws strengthening lead testing requirements for schools and day cares. Those groups coalesced into the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative (PHSI).

A series of revelations subsequently intensified a sense of crisis over conditions in the schools. In 2017, the district released a Facility Condition Assessment report detailing its multibillion-dollar backlog of repair work and capital projects, based on assessments done in 2015. Later that year, a 6-year-old boy at Watson T. Comly School in Northeast Philadelphia was seriously harmed from eating lead paint chips.

The school district began lead paint remediation, only to pause after it became clear its contractor was doing shoddy work and leaving behind hazardous dust. The district collaborated with PHSI, the teachers union, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, and others to prioritize schools for remediation, craft new oversight and testing procedures, and pass legislation setting lead safety rules for schools.

That advisory process showed that, when they wish to, Superintendent William Hite and other district officials can collaborate with other stakeholders to properly plan facility repairs, said Masur, who heads PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental nonprofit.

“That’s a place where we worked with local officials, health experts, and even at the end, the school district, which approved and supported the legislation to start to really develop a program for identifying the worst schools for lead paint, and then school by school, addressing them, properly remediating and cleaning it up,” Masur said.

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