Kenney’s school visits reflect a change in focus for the city’s education

In mid-November, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission voted to disband after operating for 16 years. The historic vote came several weeks after Mayor Jim Kenney announced the city would take back control of the school system in one of his biggest actions regarding education in Philadelphia.

Throughout Kenney’s campaign and tenure, he put education at the forefront of the discussion. This is not easily reflected by the comparatively few times the mayor visited schools throughout the city.

In a speech announcing his call for the SRC to end, Kenney began by telling the story of how a boy at the Pennypack House said it was the best school he’d been to. The Pennypack House is a school for incarcerated boys within the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road.

“Despite his situation, the young man told me that he was enjoying his time at Pennypack,” Kenney said in his speech.

Kenney visited the school on Feb. 11, 2016. It was his first school visit since being elected mayor.

In the nearly two years since, Kenney visited a total 74 schools for various events like annual “Back to school” celebrations or reading books to children in Pre-k programs. His visits are scattered fairly evenly throughout the city, however he made a few more visits to Center City and South Philadelphia schools than North Philadelphia ones.

Click to see a heatmap of Kenney’s school appearances since his election.

A majority of Kenney’s school visits were to the city’s public schools; he went to 49 district schools, making up a little more than 66 percent of all his school appearances. This reflected a concentration on public schools, as they make up only about 40 percent of all of Philadelphia’s schools.

Kenney’s administration focused more on increasing funding for public schools around the city, instead of closing schools that didn’t perform well and making way for charter schools, which was a method used by Kenney’s predecessor, former Mayor Michael Nutter.

A survey of each public appearance Kenney made showed he spent a small portion of his time visiting schools or speaking about policy related to education. 

By dissolving, the SRC not only made the city responsible for the schools once again, but also added an expected $1 billion deficit over the course of the next five years.

In 2001, the city’s and state’s governments created the SRC — a five-member board that is made up of two city and three state appointees. The unpopular move meant the schools would basically be run from the state’s capitol in Harrisburg, more than 100 miles from the city and its students. However, the creation of the SRC meant more access to funding and lifted responsibilities from the city to pay for a $1.5 billion deficit in the coming years.

Throughout its existence, Philadelphians heavily criticized the SRC for making sweeping decisions privately and continued funding struggles and low performance results. An overwhelming majority of residents voted to dissolve the SRC in a non-binding referendum that reflected the city’s deep dislike.

Now that the SRC voted to disband, Philadelphia is set to take over the school district’s persistent issues and debt.

The high number of impoverished students attending Philadelphia schools creates a domino effect of challenges for students, educators and the school district.

The psychological, economic and health-related stress students experience result in them struggling to concentrate at school. This sets them behind academically and socially. Schools then have to cope with traumatized students in facilities that are not up to date.

In April 2017, the Philadelphia School District reported a total 281 counselors for the 214 district schools it had at the time, according to data from Open Data Philly. That averages out to a little more than one counselor per school, and one counselor for about every 685 students. A little less than 30 percent of the counselors are based in high schools – the majority, about 60 percent, are in elementary schools.

Philadelphia schools faced years of budget cuts while in control of the SRC, which was supposed to help increase support from the state.

In 2011, the district suffered 35 percent of the $294 million in cuts to the state’s school funding, according to a report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. The city educates about 12 percent of the state’s students.

In 2013, the SRC approved more than 3,700 layoffs throughout the district, including 283 counselors and 21 conflict resolution specialists.

In his speech early November, Kenney outlined several programs and initiatives that would improve student performance, but had no set plan to financially provide for them.

“Let me be clear, there will be no easy solutions for funding these resources,” he said. “The District has nothing left to cut.  …  And help from the Commonwealth is not coming.”

Some programs are already in place that could apply to Kenney’s plans, including the controversial soda tax that took effect in February 2017, which is intended to help fund Pre-k and community schools. The city is also in the process of beginning work on the $500 million Rebuild initiative to improve the city’s libraries, community centers and playgrounds.

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