Monday, December 8, 2008

Philly [the adjective] Schools

Philly when used as an adjective, particularly as in Philly school, brings on a dirty, unpalatable texture, weighing down school as if with a fetid, boggy layer of inward and outward doom. When I started working for a school picture company, photographers in the office threw around “Philly school” as if it was the F-bomb, ending tails of horrific work days with, “It was a Philly school.” to knowing nods from fellow shooters.

At first, I relegated this to the fact that few seemed to be from or living in Philly proper; not only did they talk about disliking even “going into the city,” but they also didn’t seem to possess that special oomph of endearing and rude aggressiveness and poise that would make them functional in this particular town. They can’t handle a little attitude, I thought.

They started out sending me to suburban elementary and middle schools, in Lower Merion, a bit past the Main Line, in Doylestown, etc. I arrived, without fail, to sprawling buildings with polished floors, lotion in the private ladies’ bathrooms, unbarred, clean windows, and, most noticeably, young bombshell teachers and happy, well behaved children. When, weeks later, my boss started sending me to Philly schools, it was like being downgraded to the crap class, where one has to run behind the train instead of sitting inside of it.

It was familiar, because, after all, I had attended Philly public schools for a good, painful, long while. But with this new reference frame, the suburban school, these old building looked even more haggard and their children and teachers even more tragic.

The problem is this: Pennsylvania funds its schools in one of the most blatantly unbalanced and ungracious manners in the country. It’s so bad that in 1998 the Philadelphia School District and the city of Philadelphia actually sued the state in a civil rights suit, claiming that the state’s funding practices were glaringly discriminatory against districts with large numbers of non-white [read: poor] students. PA does this by making up only 36% of the districts’ budget with state funds, one of the lowest rates in the entire U.S., and relying heavily, 44% heavy, on property taxes to fill in the woeful budget. In areas where residents have money this works out fine and there is a ring of suburbs choking Philadelphia where districts are actually funded not just sufficiently, but extravagantly. Meanwhile, poorer districts are perpetually underfunded. When you consider that in PA the richest district is 84 times wealthier than the poorest district, you can start to imagine the great gradation of quality, like a slowly creeping shadow, that moves steadfastly towards poorer areas until it envelops them in its metaphorical darkness completely.

My schools weren’t terrible; I attended Anne Frank and Comly in the Northeast, Baldi for middle school and the oft-commended magnet, Masterman, for high school. Masterman, which consistently ranks as the city’s best public school and even makes national lists of top 100 schools, remains polemic to me; I was psyched to be downtown, my classmates were mostly smart and interesting and I had a few great teaches. But I also had classes without teachers, where permanent substitutes entertained us with their life stories, tales of meeting men on vegan message boards, asked roomfuls of bored teenagers for advice, or assigned silent reading as a substitute for actual teaching, while brooding over yet another failed law board exam up front. There were teachers who were intelligent and informed on their subject but absolutely incapable of leading an actual class, and the strange reverse of that, as well. The shortage of smart teachers, of teachers good at teaching, and the holy grail of the combination of the two, along with a healthy lack of decent text books and resources in the supposedly best school in the city are telling of the environment in the rest of the schools.

As a photographer, I do not enter classrooms. I interact with the kids and their teachers in the auditorium, and although this probably brings in a different element to student-teacher interactions and student behavior, I believe it is still telling.

There are consistencies in the wealthier and poorer schools, for example.

In the suburbs, teachers sing to their younger classes. With older students, teachers are cordial and trusting, often counting on them to return to class alone. While waiting, students are chatty but do not yell, polite without the city schools’ seemingly authoritarian enforced use of “Miss” and “Sir” towards any figure with power, which often happens to be their white teacher. Teachers seem eager to get the kids back to class. In some schools, teachers address students as “friends” (as in, “Ok friends, let’s all line up.”) and rarely raise their voices for extended periods. One of the most amazing things I witnessed, while packing my gear, in a suburban school, was an assembly. Each grade greeted the rest of the school in a choral hello, and then chosen students did presentations of what they were learning in their classes, both as a way to formally exhibit their progress and ostensibly to tease, constructively, kids coming into that grade in upcoming years, who will get their chance to perform such exciting exercises. At the end, the entire school, close to 500 kids and their teachers, did the chicken dance together. I, sadly, imagined the headlines if this were to ever happen in a Philly elementary school: Children Trampled in Tragic Chicken Dance.

In Philly schools, picture day is louder, more disorganized, uncomfortably chaotic. Teachers bring their students and keep them, or at least try, in strict lines. They yell at their students, not with any sort of escalation, but explosively, from the child’s first offense. Younger kids are often physically manipulated, instead of vocally instructed, shoved into the lines, pulled by sleeves to come here or there. A co-worker told me about a teacher that beat a kindergarten student for taking off his dress shirt without even talking to him about it first. With older kids, it is normal to see teachers chase them around to get them back in their seats or lines, or, alternatively, to see resigned teachers that let their charges do as they will; the kids run around, hitting each other, flirting, yelling, teasing. The return to class is often delayed for elusive, to me, reasons. Kids roll their eyes at me more often, decline my requests to smile for the camera, and boys, without fail, try to throw some Ds on the admittedly lame pose with peace signs and gangsta chin strokes. Philadelphia public school students wear uniforms. Younger kids are taught to respond to rhythmic clapping, quieting down and clapping along with the teacher, instead of instructions. Classes are larger, buildings are older, dirtier, sometimes with the music teacher tucked behind the curtains of the auditorium stage. At one school a teacher refused to let her first grade class get their pictures takes because the six year olds were supposedly misbehaving that badly (they weren’t).

I am describing here an ambiance. But performance levels between the two can be found in statistics and it’s clear that Philly’s ambiance translates to its students’ success – it’s limited. Both state and federal government, however, seem to tell us that just because funding is limited, success shouldn’t be, and Bush’s No Child Left Behind mandates testing for State-set standards blind to State-wide inequalities. Not that poorer schools should strive towards lower goals, but it seems ridiculous to even half-heartedly demand equal scores and reward the ones that do well. Jonathan Kozol writes, “There is something deeply hypocritical about a society that holds an eight-year-old inner-city child "accountable" for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years earlier.”

In July, the PA’s state legislature passed a budget developed on a new formula for funding the state’s schools. The budget guarantees a minimum 3% budget increase from the state, and a possible further increase that depends on factors like the district’s poverty level, size, number of English learners, and regional cost differences. And Barack Obama, upon entering office, has vowed to reform NCLB, invest in early education programs and build a new “teacher army.” That all sounds promising in a liminal, vague kind of way, but meanwhile it looks like the Obamas are going to send their daughters to a private school and the Philly school will remain in stigmatized italics.

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