Othella Stanback could very well be a Philadelphia public school success story in the making. At 19 years old and in her senior year at Ben Franklin High in North Philly, she’s dropped out of school twice and considered leaving more times than that. But she’s always come back. And she has dreams for herself.
“I want to be an FBI agent,” Stanback says, sitting in the late afternoon on the steps of a local welfare office, where she’s come to file paperwork. She has two young children—4-year-old Amor and 2-year-old Amira—and while it’s been tough juggling school and parenting, her ambitions have remained intact. “Or teach philosophy,” she says, ticking off her potential careers. “Except I took one of those quiz things for college recently and it told me the thing I’d be good at is organizing.” Of course, before starting any of those careers, she needs to get into to college—and that’s where the odds are stacked against her.
Stanback’s got her sights set on Millersville University, a state college in Pennsylvania an hour and a half west of the city. College applications are typically due at the end of November, but she doesn’t have the strong file she ought to. From ninth through eleventh grades, Stanback attended University City High, where she took biology, chemistry and physical science from a favorite science teacher. That’s who Stanback would have asked for a letter of recommendation for college. But earlier this year, Universtiy was shut down in a massive sweep of school closures in Philadelphia. In the ensuing chaos, Stanback lost touch with her science teacher.
“I had connections with teachers, it was relationships I built,” Stanback says, looking back at the educational home she lost. “So now when I come to school I don’t really know anyone. I have nobody I can connect to and no teacher I can really trust to talk about certain things, because that takes time.”
Philadelphia’s public education system, with roughly 140,000 students, is struggling for survival. In 2010, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett was elected on a platform that included a range of controversial, if increasingly widespread education reform ideas. He called for test-driven teacher accountability, vouchers, decreased regulations for charter schools and a larger role for private, for-profit entities. So when Corbett faced a state fiscal crisis—one that has been compounded by the loss of federal stimulus money, which was propping up the state’s education budget—he responded with a mixture of austerity measures and hardline reforms for public schools. Last year, the governor slashed $1.1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, cuts that particularly devastated Philadelphia’s state-controlled schools. On the advice of a private consulting group, school officials announced that the district would need to close a stunning five dozen schools, and noted that the district ought to brace itself for dissolution. This year, in an effort to forestall that devastation, the district asked teachers to take pay cuts of between 5 and 13 percent of their salaries. That wasn’t enough. In the spring, the district closed 23 schools, including Stanback’s. This fall, students went back to schools with skeletal staff after the district laid off 3,859 people, one of every five district employees.
Philadelphia is deep into worst-case scenario territory, but it’s not alone. In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—all of them with sizable black populations and long histories of entrenched poverty—lawmakers have responded to budget crises with cuts to public education and market-driven education reform agendas. In a city like Philadelphia, which has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities, in which 39 percent of the city’s children live in poverty and in which blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be poor, robust public schools are even more vital. The consequences of the collapse of the city’s public school system is falling squarely on the backs of Stanback and her classmates. [Photo below: Mural outside now-closed University City High School]