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A Philly Education

Last night on Twitter the hashtag #PhillyEducation was trending. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a topic to be proud about.

I have been following Philly’s school funding drama enough to know that teachers and administrators have been laid off throughout the district even if I can’t explain exactly the source of the budget shortfall. Yesterday their absence was felt by students and parents on the first day of school. I saw tweets about schools with just one guidance counselor, rooms in new charter schools with no desks because no one had put them together, and this one:

It all makes me think back to a September 15 years ago. I was starting my senior year from a new commute, because my mother and I moved from the depths of Southwest Philly to rent a house just off 2nd street in South Philly – almost the entire width of Philadelphia – .

I remember looking at a lot of houses and apartments that summer, but they all failed one major test. No, not my present-day test of how loudly I could play my guitar before the neighbors complain. Back then, the test was if I could get to my public high school at 17th and Spring Garden on my own via SEPTA by only making a single transfer.

The litmus test was that I had to be able to stay in the Philly school district.

That high school, J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, is a public “magnet” school that accepts the top students from throughout the city. It has spent the last two decades perched atop the state’s high school rankings – yes, even above private schools. That’s partially due to the caliber of the students it accepts, but everything to do with the talent and dedication of the staff that develops those students.

I started high school super-smart but uninterested with most subjects. I graduated with an A- average and a huge scholarship to college. Four AP classes and my advanced French skills allowed me to skip almost entire year of course credits at Drexel, which allowed me to start with classes in my own major and to complete minors in theatre and music (and very nearly history). My guidance counselor made sure of that. I learned public speaking skills by becoming a Peer Counselor to kids on the topics of health and sexuality, mentored by my Health teacher. I knew I was interested in theatre because my Biology teacher was also a theatre director, and spent three years nurturing my performance skills until I could hold the stage as a lead. I was interested in a music minor so I could record a third demo CD in Drexel’s studio, having recorded my first lo-fi attempt at home as a senior project with our choir teacher as an advisor. I applied for my job at RJMetrics because I’ve spent a decade teaching myself PHP and MySQL based on programming skills I learned in an elective class my freshman year – I had never had access to a computer before then. I write today because I wrote all the time then, and submitted to an extracurricular school literary magazine every quarter, and because teachers constantly forced me to submit my work to be published outside of school – and it was, repeatedly.

None of those opportunities will be available at Masterman today, or anywhere else in the Philadelphia School District.

This morning I walked into work carrying the same backpack that accompanied me to my first morning as a senior fifteen years ago, but also with a lifetime of skills and experiences built upon a foundation learned in Philadelphia’s School District. I was lucky enough to attend a magnet school, but the real point is that I wanted to learn and I was in an environment where there were many teachers who were happy to oblige.

I’m scared for the students of Philadelphia today, because if Teairah’s tweet is any indication, wanting to learn is no longer enough of pre-requisite to achieve success in the Philadelphia school district.