A Schools-First Agenda to Support Philadelphia Children and Families
I have spent my life fighting for public schools, because I know that public education is the single biggest investment we can make in our future. As a teacher, activist, and mom, I took on a status quo that slashed school budgets, demonized teachers, and tried to leave our children behind. I didn’t do this alone–I did it with so many of you. We organized with parents who fought to keep their schools open. We stood up for children facing violence, disinvestment, and discrimination at their schools. And above all else, we demanded that Philadelphia officials treat public schools like the sacred public compact they are.
As a Councilmember, I continued that fight, by building citywide coalitions and passing legislation to mandate clean and toxic free water for all, increased school funding, and critical protections for trans children, and helped to bring local control of education back to Philadelphia once and for all.
Even amidst crises and attacks on public education, Philadelphians know another truth: Philadelphia schools are extraordinary places, with eager students, dedicated school staff and skilled teachers who refuse to give up. Now, with local control returned to Philadelphia’s people, a four billion dollar budget under Mayoral control for the first time in twenty years, and the opportunity to fully fund our schools once and for all, we have an opportunity to change the trajectory of our schools and our city. The next Mayor must seize the chance to deliver the public school system that Philadelphia needs: by pushing our city and school district towards building a vibrant, growing, responsive, accountable, nurturing, rigorous institution that ensures every child, in every neighborhood, receives a contemporary, effective, and caring education. The era of managing decline and unaccountable decision making ends now.
We can make this vision possible by centering the potential of every Philadelphia child, by valuing the adults who care for and educate those children, by being wise stewards of precious public funds, and by treating parents, neighborhoods, and the city as equal partners in the future of our schools.
Here’s how we make that happen.
Partner in a statewide coalition to fully fund public education.
In February, Commonwealth Court delivered the news that all Philadelphians know: children in low-wealth communities are being failed—and discriminated against—by Pennsylvania’s inadequate, inequitable method of funding public schools. Every Philadelphian must commit to this fight.
As Mayor, Helen will employ the power of Philadelphians to seize this opportunity. Philadelphia and Philadelphians will partner with other counties, school boards, and advocates around the state to demand that once and for all, Harrisburg fund our schools, by working collaboratively with the General Assembly, Governor Josh Shapiro, and organized communities already in the fight for fully funded schools.
Craft budgets that reflect Philadelphia’s actual needs.
The school funding decision laid bare the deficiencies suffered by Philadelphia schools: insufficient numbers of educators and critical support staff as well as failing buildings. But it should not take a court case to explain to the public what schools need. To that end, Helen will mandate that proposed budgets for our schools begin by identifying what schools must actually have in place to fully and safely educate Philadelphia children. This basic premise has long been absent from Philadelphia’s budgeting process for its schools, despite being typical in better-off suburban districts. Helen will have the District set clear standards and goals for core elements such as class sizes, counselor ratios, components of a well-rounded curriculum, activities from arts to athletics, and also facilities and maintenance. In other words, Helen will ensure that policymakers and the public alike recognize that the fight for fair funding is not abstract, but rather is the pathway to provide the professional staff and modern buildings that every child is promised by the Constitution.
Devote more City resources to our public schools.
While the promise of more funding is on the horizon, Philadelphia children cannot afford to wait for the promise of state action to get started on this process. Helen will increase City funding for our schools, championing strong budget proposals and mobilizing coalitions to get them over the finish line, so that Philadelphia can start the process of overhauling our schools into the sacred, vibrant institutions children and educators deserve.
Toxic, dilapidated public school buildings are far too common in Philadelphia. Our school district needs nearly five billion dollars in deferred maintenance and repairs in its buildings. A number of buildings are in such disrepair, or so old that they are cheaper to replace, rather than repair. From peeling paint, ancient electrical systems and boilers, to a lack of air conditioning, outdated classrooms, and miserable or nonexistent playgrounds, our call is urgent: these conditions fail our children, enrage parents, and demoralize educators and school staff.
Research shows that schools with playgrounds and gardens, temperate classrooms, heating and air conditioning, learning areas such as art rooms and science labs, clean and functioning bathrooms, abundant natural light and quality acoustics to quiet noise and external distractions have exponential benefits and are critical to students’ learning. They establish positive school climates, retain teachers, improve students’ physical health and development, and most important: they show our children that they matter.
With new federal and state capital funding opportunities on the horizon, and with a commitment of new Philadelphia capital funds itself, Helen will kick off a Green New Deal for Philadelphia schools, to ensure every building is equipped for 21st century learning. Philadelphia will modernize our facilities in an era of climate change, place Philadelphia public school students into a pipeline of family-sustaining, union jobs, engage the entire city in a real facilities planning process, and most of all, provide children and educators the facilities they deserve.
Lead a school repair plan that truly matches the need.
The District projects spending $2.5 billion on facilities by the end of the next Mayor’s term. Yet with a $5 billion repair deficit, and $300 million annually needed to maintain current conditions, this is not nearly enough. Therefore, through existing funding streams, new state opportunities (including potential renewed funding for asbestos and capital remediation through proposals from leaders such as Senator Hughes and Representative Fiedler), and with the dedication of Philadelphia’s own capital funding streams, Helen will launch a plan for the District to dedicate at least $10 billion over ten years for a Green New Deal to transform Philadelphia schools. It will be a transformative start to bringing Philadelphia’s school facilities into the 21st Century.
Build a community-driven and transparent facilities master plan.
For far too long, the School District’s facilities plans have been developed behind closed doors, with minimal public oversight and input. Rather than allowing leaders to work in silos, Helen will bring together leaders who will forge a path through open communication, and joint planning, and she will establish binding legal agreements to ensure lasting intergovernmental coordination, public access, and a meaningful seat at the table for stakeholders. This coordinated effort will include the Mayor, City Council, the School District, the City’s Departments of Planning and Development, Public Health, and Department of Public Property, building trades leaders, environmental leaders, teachers, principals, maintenance workers, students, parents, caregivers, and community leaders. Facilities planning must start with the vision and needs of our school communities, and ensure those communities are central to shaping and approving the ultimate plan.
Center school buildings as neighborhood anchors.
A strong facilities plan will meet not just the needs of schools, but the needs of communities. In neighborhoods where schools are currently underutilized, Helen will not mark them for closure and potential long-term vacancy. Instead, she will support a community driven process to determine a co-location strategy. This will allow government, medical providers, early childhood education providers, and nonprofits to join in occupying those buildings, providing needed space for community partners in a neighborhood anchor, while also reserving the potential for future use if needed for school expansion down the line.
Rebuild the School District’s capacity to safely manage complex, large-scale facilities projects.
The District’s problems with construction are well-known, but often have a common source: a skeletal central staff that was unequipped to supervise the massive tasks in front of it. The District’s response, born out of short-term necessity, has been to rely on significant outsourcing, paying for turnkey projects with contractors to not only build but manage and oversee them. Yet this leaves the District too often lacking control of its own destiny, and without the ability to provide meaningful oversight. Accordingly, rebuilding our schools must also mean rebuilding the central office’s capacity to effectively manage operations (including capital, environmental, maintenance) as well as to pursue grants and funding opportunities, which has been gutted by years of disinvestment.
Expand the School District’s capacity for preventative maintenance.
Capital capacity is not the only place the District must improve: the District has skimped for too long on its maintenance staff. These penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions result in preventative maintenance too often going unresolved and turn into expensive, catastrophic disasters, as we have seen most recently with the scandal at Building 21. As discussed more below, Helen knows that maintenance staff, paid a family-sustaining wage, must be increased to ensure school buildings maintain the investments Philadelphia puts into them.
Ensure environmentally healthy schools that are ready to meet the challenge of climate change.
Philadelphia has an important role to play in meeting the looming disaster of climate change, and embracing a “Green New Deal” for our schools means seizing the opportunity to both ensure our school buildings are sustainably upgraded and that Philadelphia is equipping workers with high-quality jobs and the skills needed to meet future climate challenges. For new construction, this will mean buildings built to high environmental standards. For building overhauls, this will mean investing in new windows, doors, plumbing, and HVAC and electrical systems. And it will mean taking any opportunity to use school buildings themselves as engines of renewable energy, such as Representative Fiedler’s pending proposal to install solar panels on school buildings in the Commonwealth.
Design schools to meet 21st century learning needs.
A Green New Deal will provide an end result Philadelphia can be proud of: spaces that are conducive to learning and child development, which value students and educators alike. A recently-completed assessment of school buildings revealed the profound mismatch between learning needs and the existing building configurations, providing a detailed roadmap for needed improvements. This means ensuring modern classrooms for the youngest students, designed to promote reading, and libraries for them to read. It means air-conditioned buildings for all students. And it means ample CTE spaces and spaces for the arts.
Provide real playgrounds for every school.
Two-thirds of Philadelphia schools don’t have playgrounds. Play is a child’s work, and critical to building joy in schools and communities. A Green New Deal means an end to cracked asphalt, rather than playgrounds at elementary schools. Helen will mandate that every school building that has young children will have healthy places for those young children to play, in projects coordinated with the Philadelphia Water Department to break up asphalt outside of schools and help meet our city’s goals of lessening water runoff. She will leverage and scale up outside partnerships, and ensure those resources are allocated equitably.
Use the City’s public investment as a catalyst to create high quality jobs.
Building and repairing schools at this scale will require significant union labor. Philadelphia’s graduates need family-sustaining jobs and vibrant, practical CTE programming. And Philadelphia’s schools need workers dedicated to their repair and their upkeep. As such, Helen will spearhead a “blue-green alliance,” bringing union leaders and environmental experts together to develop a plan for an organically grown workforce that can provide repairs and long-term redesigns of Philadelphia school building infrastructure, and prepare graduates of Philadelphia’s public schools with in-demand skills and experience.
Expand CTE and other career programs to place Philadelphia children in Philadelphia union jobs.
Programs like the District’s new career education program at Strawberry Mansion have started the process of placing children into the pipeline for the building trades. As the District radically alters the state of its buildings, it must accelerate and expand programs like it, developing a growing cohort of Philadelphia graduates with practical, hands-on learning experiences in Philadelphia schools, dedicated to servicing Philadelphia school building issues, with a dedicated pathway to family-sustaining employment after graduation.
Ensure that Philadelphians benefit from Philadelphia construction.
Through community benefits agreements and other mechanisms, Helen will ensure that Philadelphia residents—and Philadelphia public school graduates—receive their fair share of jobs rebuilding and repairing Philadelphia schools. A construction initiative of this scale is an opportunity to build needed pathways to union membership and increase the racial and gender diversity represented in the skilled building trades.
From the moment a child walks out her front door in the morning until the moment she walks back in, their safety is the responsibility of her broader community, and this city. The first pillar of that responsibility is ensuring children’s immediate physical safety. The second pillar is attending to their social and emotional needs. Treating the body and mind of all Philadelphia students is not merely a safety strategy, but also an academic one, allowing students to overcome challenges and engage with school. To achieve this, Helen will restore the village, and treat the safety of our children as a whole-city mission that will involve every agency of government working in coordination.
Helen has consistently led major efforts to increase safety and security for young people, from transformative work to turn around persistently dangerous schools to kickstarting the School District’s Safe Path and school safety zone programs. She led intergovernmental efforts to reform abusive and ineffective programs that had failed Philadelphia’s young people for decades, and launched a comprehensive Youth-Powered Anti-Violence Agenda to dedicate federal pandemic relief funds to meet urgent needs of our children. As mayor, she will implement these needed programs and ensure they are truly working. Every parent wants a bright and healthy future for their child, and achieving that goal will be Helen’s foremost priority.
Mobilize to protect every single child while they travel to school and return home.
As Mayor, Helen will not only ensure that every student feels safe inside of school, but protect those students on the routes they travel to and from school. She will invest in additional crossing guards and community safety monitors, and improving those jobs to end persistent vacancies. She will provide every student free access to transportation, so that they are not forced to walk through unsafe corridors just because they live within a mile of their school. And she will ensure that law enforcement is fully coordinating with both District and charter schools; that means prioritizing the safety of students and staff on transit, on key corridors, and in the areas surrounding our schools, so that “school safety zones” live up to their name.
Give young people safe places to go year round, from morning to night.
Helen’s administration will also lead a ‘year round, morning to night’ strategy to invest in and expand ‘out of school time (OST)’ programming for youth so that all students have access to the safe, supportive enrichment, employment, and recreation opportunities they need to thrive. Helen will ensure every family has convenient access to before and after-school programs, as well as summer camps that are free or truly affordable, and break down the barriers that currently exclude too many young people and make it difficult for providers to serve them. Every young person who wants one will have access to a job. Helen’s plan for youth and young adults also includes serious investments in neighborhood assets like public libraries and recreation centers, so they have the resources to stay open and offer robust programming to students on evenings, weekends, and throughout the summer months. Providing every child, teen, and young adult access to high quality care, programming, mentoring, guaranteed job training and compensation, and structure from morning to night will not only keep young people out of the path of violence but give parents and families critical support to live full, healthy lives.
Ensure real safety inside our schools, and launch a rapid-response strategy to transform school climate.
Helen will prioritize making schools the sanctuaries our students need. Too often, our schools replicate the unsafe conditions that surround them, further traumatizing young people and staff and leading to students disengaging from school or families leaving the District. As Mayor, Helen will appoint a leadership position singularly dedicated to school safety. She will launch a rapid-response strategy to transform school climate in schools that are persistently dangerous, and address the systemic factors, including staffing vacancies, that disproportionately harm these schools. She will invest in the climate staff needed to achieve the promise of restorative disciplinary practices, ensure there are social work teams in every school, and reverse planned cuts to counseling staff.
Implement a comprehensive model for trauma-centered schools.
Both individual students and entire school communities are profoundly impacted by violence, and for too long our schools have been left without adequate tools to deal with the immediate and ongoing effects. She will significantly improve the support provided to school communities when responding to crises or loss, including a crisis hotline and expanded grief counseling. Because violence is not limited to individual tragic events, she will ensure that schools have a comprehensive model for how to effectively manage the daily impact of trauma in their classrooms and beyond, to ensure schools are welcoming places of comfort and healing that do not exacerbate or replicate harm. She will increase training for young people in conflict resolution and mediation, and provide support to school staff who are themselves experiencing the weight of persistent trauma and violence.
Address the mental health crisis facing youth.
Helen knows that across the country, children are experiencing upheaval, with lives altered by a pandemic and regular national crises. This crisis is real and self-perpetuating, causing harm both inside our schools and in our communities, and will continue until we effectively intervene to break these cycles. As Mayor, Helen will ensure that our schools are used as a place of treatment to increase the mental and emotional well-being of students. From increased access to high-quality and culturally-responsive counseling, to co-locating mental health service providers in schools, to implementing a youth-led initiative to address the factors driving their mental health challenges and encouraging school cultures that center mental health support, Helen will ensure that we prioritize helping children heal.
Expand social work teams to all schools to help with material needs.
Part of meeting student needs is expanding what works. In part from Helen’s advocacy, the District has established a Support Team for Educational Partnership (STEP) Program that provides social work teams in a number of schools. This program is vital, particularly in an era of economic upheaval and nationwide trauma, and can help address the diverse issues faced by District families including housing instability, utility access and hunger. Using the ability to leverage Medicaid billing, Helen will expand STEP programs across the District and ultimately to the city’s charter schools.
Activate the village to make every school a community school.
The promise of community schools is a basic one: engaging the surrounding community to bring into our public schools the resources that exist outside of them. Few places are better suited for such a project than Philadelphia, with a robust landscape of caring communities and non-profit partners who want to help the next generation of Philadelphians succeed, and community leaders ready to serve as mentors for youth. Helen will protect the funding the City already dedicates for community schools, and expand the program to schools across the city. Our schools can and should be trusted resources to connect families with other needed public services, from utilities to tax assistance, at the same time we build and strengthen their relationships with surrounding neighborhoods.
Interrupt violence by supporting the kids most at risk.
Young people involved in or injured by gun violence are disproportionately likely to be disengaged from school, and to have attended a specific subset of District schools. Over 3,000 students have dropped out of school during the current school year, and there must be a rapid response strategy to reach and re-engage them to ensure their safety. The City and District should revamp the truancy system, to provide much earlier and more proactive interventions focused on resolving the issues driving non-attendance. Schools with the greatest number of children involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems should receive enhanced staffing and supports, and programs serving these young people should be more rigorously vetted and monitored to ensure that they are providing meaningful education and effective therapeutic support, as millions of dollars have been directed to abusive programs that damaged young people and fueled further violence.
Protect vulnerable children by upholding their rights and centering their dignity.
The District has a responsibility to ensure the fundamental rights and safety of every child is upheld, and that its schools are welcoming to students and families of every race, national origin, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Helen will ensure better implementation of Policy 252, to support and protect LGBTQ+ students, expand the District’s vision for sanctuary schools that truly welcome immigrant students and their families, and overhaul the District’s notoriously broken complaint process for bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
Helen knows that classrooms are sacred spaces that must give every student the opportunity to explore, learn and grow, where children can share their unique gifts, and where every teacher is reminded why they take on one of the most difficult and rewarding jobs in the world.
By every academic measure, our schools must improve. Children must learn to read at earlier grades, complete math problems with more ease, and graduate from high school ready to succeed in the world. But our students are also more than their test scores or their roles as future workers; they are individuals who deserve the chance to explore their diverse interests and to have fun and joy. Philadelphia is fortunate that caring staff work every day to instill love in Philadelphia’s public schools and make them places of discovery and growth. However, budget cuts and large classes too often rob students of the experiences that create lifelong love of learning and motivate students to walk in the door each morning. From math and reading, to arts and music, to athletics and after-school and extracurricular programs, Helen will deliver on the promise of public schools that don’t just improve test scores — but inspire, motivate, and engage children.
Ensure that every child can meet their full academic potential.
Education must start with the basics: reading and writing. Yet in Philadelphia, nearly a quarter of adults lack functional literacy skills, an abject public policy failure with consequences that cascade for a lifetime. That hole starts early: just thirty percent of third graders have mastered foundational reading skills, placing those students at dramatically higher risk of failing to graduate high school. Helen will therefore ensure the District starts with the most straightforward plan to close this unacceptable gap. First, measure the needs of Philadelphia children to succeed academically and meet critical benchmarks of learning. Next, accurately identify those needs for families, the public, and policymakers. Then, Helen will mandate rigorous, research-based educational and staffing practices, with sufficient numbers of the professionals that can change the trajectory of futures, from teachers to reading specialists and tutors.
Expand and reinvent Career and Technical Education, so students are fully prepared for their future.
The end goals of a 21st century education system are straightforward: provide students the tools they need to succeed, whether that is in a job right out of high school, or in a two- or four-year college. Yet all of these paths share common threads. The student who is engaged by a path to nursing must be skilled in critical reading, just as the student training to be a carpenter must understand geometry. The District’s most successful career education programs have shown how successful career-focused curriculum can be in engaging and motivating young people to attend and participate in learning. Helen will ensure that the District expands and reinvents these career-related learning opportunities, including formal Career and Technical Education, and will prioritize reforming barriers (including outdated state credit requirements) that limit their accessibility and attractiveness, in order to prepare students with foundational skills, knowledge, and experience that will be applicable across a range of future career and education pathways.
Expand bilingual education programs in communities with high rates of English learners, and support immigrant families.
One out of every four children in a District elementary school is classified as an English learner. Extra support is needed to ensure all students are able to communicate well with each other and the world. Yet this also creates an opportunity for students of all types to learn language together and develop lifelong fluency. This not only makes sense for the well-being of children, it is popular with parents. As Mayor, Helen will expand the District’s bilingual programs in neighborhood schools with a critical mass of English learners, increase the number of bilingual staff, ensure full language accessibility for special education services, and expand programs for “newcomer” students. Her central commitment will be to ensure immigrant, refugee, and non-English-speaking families are truly welcomed and supported in our schools
Expand Philadelphia’s Pre-Kindergarten program.
Pre-Kindergarten is one of the best investments that government can make. Studies show that Pre-Kindergarten helps children enter Kindergarten ready to learn, and the benefits for students reach all the way through adulthood. Yet for many parents, Pre-K expenses can be devastatingly high for working class Philadelphians. Philadelphia’s PHLPreK program currently serves 4,300 children, well below the original 6,000 promised. We are also neglecting an important opportunity to expand the number and size of Pre-K programs co-located in public school buildings, bringing new families into the District and improving Kindergarten enrollment. Helen will live up to that promise, and explore every avenue to achieve universal Pre-K and also invest in the early childhood workforce, particularly in those neighborhoods that need it most.
Support personal growth with robust social and emotional learning.
Helping students develop healthy identities, strong and empathetic social relationships, and skills to navigate conflicts are well accepted to be a bedrock of modern educational practice. In the School District, however, social and emotional learning is often one more task placed upon the shoulders of teachers already educating outsized classrooms. Helen will ensure that schools are provided the resources for real social and emotional learning, to allow children to scale academic and interpersonal hurdles in school, and relate to the world outside of it.
Uphold the rights of students with IEPs, and provide their schools with sufficient resources to serve them.
Eighteen percent of Philadelphia children have identified disabilities. Yet this masks vast differences from school to school, where some schools have few children with disabilities, while others have upwards of forty percent. Helen will ensure, first, that the District is living up to its mandate to integrate children with disabilities in their home schools, and in the least restrictive environments where they can thrive. Second, Helen will ensure that those schools that continue to have high percentages of children with disabilities are provided tailored resources and facilities to meet the needs of their student populations.
Fully implement new graduation requirements without leaving students behind, and lead a citywide strategy to guarantee work experience to all children who need it.
New state graduation requirements threaten the life trajectories of our students, who will soon fail to receive a high school diploma unless they meet one of five graduation pathways. While most pathways depend on proficiency on state exams, research indicates that less than 50 percent of Philadelphia’s students will qualify that way, with catastrophic numbers likely to drop out without urgent intervention. There are alternate pathways—but one key pathway requires students to demonstrate they have secured full-time work after graduation. Philadelphia has done far too little to help students meet this requirement, leaving many of them in danger of failing to graduate. There must be dedicated graduation staff and counselors to ensure that kids are getting the time-sensitive support they need to not be left behind, or penalized for how systems have failed them. The City, District, and business community must work together to match high school students with qualifying work experience, to both allow them to receive their diplomas and have an opportunity to support themselves.
Champion culturally responsive curriculum throughout the District.
A generation of Philadelphia children spilled their blood in their demands for a culturally responsive curriculum that meets the needs of Philadelphia’s student body, including a path breaking Black Studies requirement. Helen will ensure the District keeps that generations-long promise, mandating a rich and regularly-updated curriculum that is responsive to the Black, Latino, and Asian-American student population that makes up an overwhelming majority of the District.
Encourage joy and provide opportunities for exploration and growth for every child.
Because of its catastrophic underfunding, the District has often cut the very things that give children joy and help them develop as growing individuals: arts, music, athletics, and extracurricular activities. Helen will stop this impulse in its tracks. Joy and fun are the very things that bring children into school each day, and they undergird the basic dignity that all children deserve. Helen will establish a community-driven baseline for each school, ensuring that principals don’t have to choose between art and music for children, and will provide the small funding necessary to have robust extracurricular activities at every school. She will also partner with the city’s cultural institutions—from museums to sports teams—to ensure every child is provided a path to explore the extraordinary breadth of the greatest city in the world.
The Commonwealth must follow the law and provide more funding for the District to allow them to hire the full cadre of professionals our schools lack. But the time has come for the District to regularly identify what it needs to lower class sizes, provide far more robust intervention services for young learners and children with disabilities alike, fully stocked and staffed libraries, and ensure students have the mental health services that help them scale barriers, rather than be limited by them.
But while funding is necessary to provide students the staff they need, it is not sufficient. From growing the ranks of teachers of color, to creating new positions for community connectors, the District must think outside the box to provide all the staff children need. The solution to our schools lies with engaging the talented adults of our city and region. That vision will guide District and City advocacy to ensure all children have the resources they deserve.
Convene an educator retention and vacancy taskforce to holistically tackle the District’s staffing crisis.
Our vacancy crisis has far reaching consequences for students, school-based staff, and school communities. Even where positions are budgeted, vacancies plague the District, from teachers to support staff, with those vacancies concentrated in the schools that can least afford to spare them. Beyond facilities, Helen will improve working conditions in ways big and small, from ensuring that teachers have sufficient school supplies and thus do not have to spend their own money, to surging public safety resources to the communities surrounding schools during the precise times that educators and students are entering and leaving school buildings. As mayor, Helen will convene a school vacancy task force to ensure that we are deploying comprehensive and creative strategies to retain the dedicated school staff the District has, improve recruitment of new teachers, and build in redundancies–from new staff to building substitutes–to eliminate the teacher vacancy crisis.
Create pipelines to increase the numbers of teachers of color.
The research is plain: all students do better when they have access to at least one teacher of color, especially students of color. Establishing and maintaining a strong pipeline for educators who reflect the diversity of our city depends on retaining our current teachers of color and collectively making sure that all teachers can provide culturally-relevant education. Creating conditions where current teachers of color can thrive will have a profound impact on the overall educational environment and will support the ability of young people to see themselves and their full potential. This issue is not only a moral imperative, but also an academic one. Helen will ensure that there is a steady pipeline of teachers of color into the District by making it a citywide priority to support the critical work in this area by partners across the education landscape. Additionally, Helen will launch a City-led program run through the Mayor’s Office of Education that supports career changers with a seamless pathway into our schools.
Build human resources capacity and fix the hiring processes.
In addition to our pipeline issue, the District must holistically review its notoriously frustrating hiring process, with robust input from recent applicants, and build human resources capacity to eliminate the delays and barriers in hiring that keep teachers out of classrooms. It must take days, not months, to get qualified teachers in front of students.
With the exception of two years during COVID, the District engages in the trauma-inducing practice of leveling, where teachers are told weeks into the school year that they must leave their classrooms and their schools, and start anew in another classroom in another school. Leveling, at its heart, is a failure to adequately staff the District. Helen will end it.
Restore fully staffed libraries and librarians to every school.
School librarians are teachers, instructional and content specialists, and guides to unlocking worlds of discovery. Schools across the nation have them. Yet in the School District of Philadelphia, they are almost entirely absent. Helen will ensure that this most basic resource is returned to the District.
Invest in support staff.
Investing in professionals does not only mean investing in teachers. Rather, the District must recognize, value, and expand the number of critical support staff in schools, to help classroom and hallway management, to issue spot problems before they escalate, to provide robust assistance to children with disabilities, and to better allow teachers to focus on the enormous responsibility of heading a classroom. For too long, these jobs have been characterized by inadequate pay, limited hours, and a lack of benefits, resulting in difficulty recruiting and retaining needed staff. Helen believes those who fill these critical positions should be treated and compensated as professionals, be given the essential training they need (including in conflict resolution and de-escalation), and provided with pathways for advancement.
Develop a pipeline of “community connectors,” full-time positions that help link schools, families, and neighborhoods.
To find long-term, stable support staff, the District must be sufficiently creative about finding these adults, and making the District an attractive place to work so that they stay. For example, across the city, crossing guards spend four hours per day ensuring that children reach school safely. Those guards are often members of the community, trusted by parents, and respected by children. Yet when the children reach school, a guard’s duty ends. In an era when the District needs to grow a stable non-teaching workforce to help with climate and family engagement, the City and District must partner to create a pipeline that would allow community connectors like crossing guards and neighborhood leaders to take up or expand roles in the District.
For too long, the District has treated parents and the public as adversaries, rather than partners. Families are expected to send their children to school with little information about the conditions of their schools–from the facilities to the staffing levels–and little way to change that. Meanwhile, decisions are made at the District level, and then parents are given the opportunity for “feedback” that is little more than a venting session, without the chance for meaningful input to begin with. And all of this is compounded by a school district that–despite a $4 billion budget–often makes decisions in isolation from the greater city it serves.
Helen knows that schools work when District officials engage families, provide clear information, act transparently, and work with communities. And Helen knows that the city will rise or fall with the success of our schools. She will ensure that both the City and School District engage in a united effort to deliver the schools that Philadelphia deserves.
Lead a common vision, executed by a Deputy Mayor for Education, School Board, and Superintendent.
For too long, the District and the City have existed on parallel tracks, with no cohesive vision. That must end. Helen will appoint qualified school board members and a deputy Mayor of Education who, in partnership with the Superintendent, agree on a single, unified, coordinated vision for the District. The Deputy Mayor of Education will spend half her time in the District itself, ensuring regular, constant communication and coordination of the common vision: providing every child with a high quality education, and making clear that schools will never again exist in a silo, but instead as the most critical service Philadelphia provides.
Grow enrollment in District Schools.
Rather than managing decline, the District must adopt a growth mindset for its schools. This begins with explaining why parents should choose the District in the first instance. From improving conditions within schools, to sending postcards to residents when a deed is recorded or utility accounts are started in order to introduce residents to schools, to engaging churches, neighborhood groups, day care centers, and realtors, the District must re-orient itself with a clear goal: increasing student enrollment.
Establish a fully-staffed “One Stop” phone line and neighborhood drop in centers to assist families.
For far too often, parents in the District cannot get basic questions answered, with calls to the central office often going unanswered and messages unreturned. Parents deserve answers. Helen will ensure the District will pilot neighborhood drop-in centers, where parents can have questions answered about everything from Kindergarten admissions to student records requests.
Give parents a responsive and respectful partnership, not a rubber stamp.
Public engagement from the District follows a familiar pattern: announcing a policy with little input, creating a process for the District to receive feedback, but seemingly creating no meaningful way that feedback is incorporated. This must end. From bell schedules, to the high school admissions process, to facilities planning, the District has failed at this job, and missed opportunities to actually learn from community stakeholders. Helen will insist that school leadership sees parents, city government, and citizens, as partners rather than passive recipients of whatever policy the District adopts.
Lead a culture of transparency.
From start to finish, the business of the School District is often performed behind closed doors, with a district that seems to take the position that any information that even conceivably should be hidden should be. Helen will turn this culture on its head. This will start from the very beginning: the applications and meetings in her school board selection process will be open to the public. Meanwhile, District staff will be given clear instructions that with few exceptions (for things such as student and staff privacy), district information should be presumed public, and the District’s endless fights over open-record requests will come to an end. And rather than seek to suppress input from the public in its board meetings, the District will attempt to broaden the ways that members of the public can provide meaningful feedback and oversight. The District will also be charged with ending a practice of approving frequent and costly legal settlements without addressing their underlying systemic failures.
Create a school conditions dashboard to allow parents to hold the District accountable.
In the middle of a District-created crisis of trust over the conditions of its buildings, the District has taken an unacceptable path: filing a lawsuit seeking to void a City law that requires basic City oversight over school conditions. Helen will ensure the District takes a diametrically opposite approach: creating school building dashboards that will allow parents to see the conditions of buildings, the status of inspections and repairs, teacher vacancies and more.
Overhaul the high school selection process by reimagining neighborhood high schools and fixing the broken lottery system.
High school is a defining period in the trajectory of young people’s lives, and a new vision is needed to ensure every student has a high school that can prepare them for their futures. With good intention, the District set out to make the high school selection process fairer, and to make its most selective schools more representative of the city. Yet from the beginning, the design and implementation of that process failed. It relied on lotteries as a substitute for equity, used overbroad tools like zip codes, used and abandoned a mismatched automated writing program, eliminated the ability of educators to use their judgment to assist those children who need a hand up, caused plummeting enrollment at some schools, and failed to provide solutions for the longstanding structural inequities that have left neighborhood high schools behind, all the while causing immense frustration to families and staff
Helen will ensure the District gets this right, wholly reassessing the high school selection process, and ensuring that a solution for some schools does not undermine others. She will insist the District employ an admissions process that takes into account a whole student and involves a human touch. She will reinstate and protect functioning middle-to-high school models, like Carver and Beeber. And she will demand the District gets equity right, using far more precise and effective tools to ensure that Philadelphia schools reflect Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.
The other side of the coin in the special admissions process is the role of neighborhood high schools, far too often neglected by the District. Core to Helen’s vision for good schools in every neighborhood is a recommitment to the high schools of our neighborhoods. A fully funded District means ensuring that each of these schools is treated like the cherished and essential institution it must be, with signature programs at each school, from expanded AP and IB programs to specialized CTE programs.
Overhaul transportation so every child can get to school on time.
Children cannot learn when they are not in school, yet too many of those children who rely on school transportation—District and charter schools alike—are habitually late because their school buses do not arrive on time. This is especially problematic given children with disabilities are disproportionately served by District transportation. It must be a priority to address persistent driver shortages and seek changes to state laws that leave the District responsible for transporting private school and out-of-county students. From coordinating with the Streets Department and public utilities to monitor road closures and avoid conflicts with trash pickups, to weekly reports on on-time metrics, Helen will prioritize the basics: getting children to school on time.
Engage neighborhoods to support their schools.
What happens in neighborhood schools is too often a mystery to those in the neighborhood that surround it. In order to have true community schools, communities must feel engaged with the schools a neighborhood serves. With support from central staff, Helen will ensure that each school creates semi-regular communications and opportunities for connection with the neighborhoods it serves, from open houses to vibrant events with food and childcare, highlighting the accomplishments and challenges a neighborhood’s school faces as well as ways the community can help.
Coordinate city services with each Philadelphia school, charter, district, and private school alike.
For far too long, decisions have been made within the City without determining whether schools—District, charter, and private—are impacted. This must change. From road closures due to utilities work to public safety decisions, Helen knows the City must ensure that the needs of its schools are reconciled with the services it provides, with a goal of minimizing disruptions and interruptions in the school day.
Supervise and improve services to charter schools.
Tens of thousands of students attend District authorized charter schools. Every one of those students must be cherished like those students in District schools. While its tools are limited, the District must do a better job of supervising the charter school sector, so that struggling schools are not closed suddenly, and charter boards are held accountable for ensuring that all children—including those with disabilities—have the same access to Philadelphia charter schools.
Accountability from the District, however, must be a two-way street: from public safety to transportation to student admissions, the District must be a better partner to the charter sector. Every charter school leader must have a direct line to the School District, as would any District principal. The District should also reform systems that have resulted in delayed notification of potential overpayments to charter schools, causing end of year budget chaos and hardship.