Monica Yant Kinney: Philadelphia mothers battling to save funding for neighborhood school

Posted: May 15, 2011

What a week it was for education in the Keystone State.

The already flush University of Pennsylvania got a record $225 million donation for its medical school from philanthropists Raymond G. and Ruth Perelman.

Philadelphia University, not an Ivy but inching closer in tuition and ambition, received $5 million from an anonymous alum to help build a 38,500-square-foot engineering and design center in East Falls.

In related news, Gov. Corbett still intends to slash public-education funding for wee Pennsylvanians instead of taxing adults engaged in lucrative enterprises such as natural gas extraction or tapping an estimated $500 million budget surplus.

And three moms from Wissahickon drove a Nissan Maxima to Harrisburg to ask a state senator whether they have any hope of saving the music teacher at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School.

His name is Nic Dorsaneo. If he's laid off, expect the 28 donated guitars he scored for his young rockers to gather dust.

"The kids know what's happening," explains Cook parent Cheryl Dore. "They are well-aware that unless something happens, Mr. Dorsaneo is leaving."

Say adios to Spanish

What could happen, if or when he leaves, remains as much a mystery as how the School District of Philadelphia - with 150,000 students, 250-plus schools, rampant violence, and a 44 percent dropout rate - can prepare future doctors or engineers with $629 million less the next school year.

The nuclear option calls for jettisoning nearly 4,000 employees, killing full-day kindergarten, and idling buses.

If that doesn't sound awful, listen to Lisa Ashenfelter explain the pain on tap for Cook, a thriving and diverse 430-student neighborhood K-8 with soaring enrollment and no racial achievement gap.

"We're going to lose one first-grade teacher, one second-grade teacher, and the third-grade teacher we were supposed to hire," Ashenfelter tells me on the way home from Harrisburg. "We'll also lose two kindergarten teachers. So we're looking at 30 kids per class."

"We're losing Spanish, which was brand new this year," she adds. "And our gifted teacher - who is only here twice a week, seven hours a day - will be limited to 35 hours for the whole year."

SOS: Save Our Schools

The first time I met Ashenfelter, in 2009, she was urging her neighbors to stop paying for private school and give Cook a chance.

When I caught up with her again in late March, she was sitting in a Roxborough Starbucks with a dozen converts, plotting a counterattack to the looming budget blow.

Since then, they have launched a Facebook campaign called "Save Our Schools," which has become a clearinghouse for letter-writing and all manner of educational agitation.

Rebecca Poyourow organized the meeting with Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), the minority appropriations chair.

The road trip was the women's first visit to the Capitol since they were students.

Hughes tells me he warned the moms not to waste time preaching to the choir and urged them to push revenue-generators such as closing corporate loopholes or imposing a Marcellus Shale tax.

"Always write the governor, because he needs to hear it and can't live in a vacuum," Hughes says. "But prioritize with House Republicans. They could sway him."

Poyourow, who has a first grader at Cook and a preschooler en route, left Harrisburg more optimistic than when she arrived. But Dore says they must also prepare to lose.

"We're talking about whether we fund-raise to restore programs or create a 'Parent Corps' to help deal with larger class sizes."

"We're not resigned or accepting anything," she insists. They're just moms doing what moms do: fighting for their kids and planning for all possible outcomes.

Reach me at or 215-854-4670. Read me at Connect on Facebook and Twitter at

A rally to support public education in Northwest Philadelphia is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday in front of the Trolley Car Diner on Germantown Avenue.

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