Monday, April 28, 2008


The Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) which says it exists "to build the power of young people to demand a high quality education in the Philadelphia public school system." is a youth led organization dedicated to making "positive changes in the short term by learning how to organize to build power."

Right now the group wants transparency in the school districts budget practices and has the audacity to think that student voices should be heard.

Here are some of the concerns they have about next year's budget, transparency and accountability:
*We need money in the budget for proven incentives to attract and keep teachers at hard to staff schools. Only 68% of teachers in Corrective Action II schools are considered to be 'highly qualified'.

*We need money in the budget for high school reform, specifically to support work on smallschools and other proven reform methods for neighborhood schools.

*We question the $10.8 million that is budgeted next year for Educational Management Organizations, when the process of accountability for failing EMO's is still unclear.

*We question the almost $50 million that is going to private disciplinary providers, the $1.6 million budgeted for Aramark (after their contract was supposedly cut for overcharging the district) and the $3.5 million budgeted for the School Reform Commission itself, an all-volunteer body!!

The group came up with a colorful way to make their concerns known. Members of the PSU say they want to see more of what's going on in the district's budget, so with squeegees in hand they headed out to wash the windows of the school headquarters building at 440 North Broad Street last week.

Nijmie Dzurinko is an organizer with the PSU told KYW in Philadelphia, "We need to see the contracts the district has with vendors. We need to know how much money is going to those things. And we need to understand the budget priorities. We need to understand what the cuts are in the budget before decisions are made."

Philadelphia students, parents and education activists are demanding an end to what they called "sweetheart deals" between the school district and school management organizations.

"We have to stop dealing [with companies] and try to put the students first. Try to put my school and all of the other [academically struggling] schools first, because we really need it," West Philadelphia High senior Lawrence Jones-Mahoney told the the Philadelphia Daily News early this year.

A leaflet for the "window washing" demo states:

"During this past school year, along with our allies, we have worked hard to build power around proven educational reforms and public accountability for the school district, while simultaneously working to ensure greater state funding that will benefit all our schools. We've seen changes, and greater openness in the district. That doesn't mean we can rest! We are still in danger of being marginalized as a 'small but vocal group'. We must continue to show the District that parents, students and workers are becoming empowered every day to speak up and speak out about what our schools need and how our money is being spent."

More than a dozen of the districts 70 schools are managed by outside groups including Edison Schools Inc., Victory Schools, Foundations Inc., Universal Companies, the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.

The following is from the Philadelphia Weekly.

View to an Ill

Normally, the Philadelphia School District would welcome a free window washing. But on this day, service comes with a healthy dose of youthful indignation.

Gathering last Thursday on the steps of the School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street, a mob of youth activists demands transparency in the budgetary practices of the school board. The group’s demands include student involvement in choosing outside school contracts and educational oversight groups.

To represent their cause, protesters are dressed in head–to–toe white jump suits. Donning rubber gloves, they wash the building’s windows in staged protest.

Leading the charge is the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), a student–led activist group focused on educational reform. With their stomps and chants reverberating down North Broad, the students are determined to stay until someone is willing to listen to their complaints.

”All we want is transparency,” PSU spokesperson Marcus Mundy says. ”If the district’s budgetary actions affect us, we feel we should have a say. We’re the ones that have to live with it.”

Mundy is a chapter leader and 10th grader at Masterman High. ”We noticed a lot of extracurricular activities being cut, but the public budgetary hearings are basic and non–discretionary.”

A little background: EMOs, or educational management organizations—private companies brought in to help increase low test scores—have been contracted to the tune of $107 million since 2002, making Philadelphia the nation’s largest experiment in the private management of public schools.

A 2007 study conducted by the Rand Corporation sought to determine the effects of EMOs. Upon inspecting the Rand study, a state–sponsored panel found ”limited evidence to support the claim that private management as implemented in Philadelphia can turn around Philadelphia’s low–performing schools.”

As the board reconvenes later this year to renegotiate EMO contracts, PSU had asked to be made privy to the discussion. Their plea was rejected.

”Half of the EMO schools are still under corrective action,” PSU Assistant Director Erica Almiron says, ”so where is the extra money going?”

”Home Ec was cancelled,” adds protestor Zakia Royster, a 10th grader at Sayre. ”We barely have any sports teams at all.”

Eleventh grader Candace Carter isn’t confident the group’s demands are being heard. ”We see how schools are funded,” she says. ”We go and talk to [the school board], and they listen … Well, at least they act like they listen. But I’ve seen no change.”

The board recently elected a new CEO, San Francisco reformer Dr. Arlene Ackerman, to work on fixing broken Philadelphia schools.

Ackerman, who had a budget meeting planned at the School District’s headquarters, stops to address the crowd. While many consider her presence a sign that their voices are being heard, some call attention to a recent Daily News article that reported Ackerman’s spending of $100,000 to convene a panel of educational experts to again research the effects of privatization.

”We are not trying to do another study,” Ackerman told the Daily News. ”We are trying to listen to more voices.”

Dr. Ackerman’s announcement that $100,000 is ”not a lot of money” was not well received by students who’ve seen their activities and educational budgets drained as a result.

”Dr. Ackerman needs to acknowledge she’s not in San Francisco anymore,” Temple student Thomas Robinson shouts into a mike set up at the protest. ”She’s in the city of Philadelphia, where every dollar counts.”

Reemerging from the district headquarters, the CEO dances with students to Outkast’s ”So Fresh So Clean” as the window washing continues. The din of chants and cheers subsides as she saunters to the mike to give her first public address to students since taking office.

”I looked at your list of demands,” Ackerman says, ”and all of them are worth considering, and more than that, some just need to be done. Nike has a slogan: Just do it. So we are going to just do it.”

She goes on to promise monthly meetings with students and to congratulate them for being proactive, adding, ”I come from a time when we took to the streets when we wanted to change something.”

As her remarks conclude, the jubilant students burst into another fit of chants and stomps. ”Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop!” they shout.

”We shouldn’t underestimate these kids,” Ackerman says after her address. ”We can’t pretend like they don’t understand because clearly they have real concerns and real input.

”Regardless of the parent organizations,” she continues, ”we need to find a way to make the schools work for all students.”

As the students disperse, their chants and stomps continue down Broad Street, echoing off the freshly washed windows of the district headquarters.

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