Improving schools for (their own) future kids

PHOTO: MELISSA KRAGLE Members of the 19125 Parents Coalition hope to provide support for their neighborhood schools and information to parents looking to learn more about education options in their ZIP code.
PHOTO: MELISSA KRAGLE Members of the 19125 Parents Coalition hope to provide support for their neighborhood schools and information to parents looking to learn more about education options in their ZIP code.
Posted: July 12, 2013

SHORTLY AFTER former Philadelphia public-school teacher Megan Rosenbach bought her house in Point Breeze in June 2011, she began mobilizing around her neighborhood elementary school.

She teamed up with her local church to raise extra money for the school. Then she founded Neighbors Investing in Childs Elementary, or NICE, which seeks to support the extracurricular needs of G.W. Childs Elementary.

The catch? Rosenbach doesn't have kids. In fact, of the four group members who are most involved with NICE, only one has a child, and that child is only 3 months old.

On the other side of the city, Jorge Santana and his wife are doing something similar. When they found out last September that they were having a baby, their very first thought was about education - and their public-school choices.

"We're now one of those people who are going to have that debate about whether we're going to go to the suburbs or not," said Santana, whose son is now just a few weeks old.

So they helped start the 19125 Parents Coalition, an umbrella organization for the various friends groups that support neighborhood schools within the 19125 ZIP code, which includes Fishtown and parts of Kensington. The coalition wants to serve as the entry point for parents who are looking to learn more about neighborhood schools and kids' programs.

"This coalition was started to see, 'How do we engage those folks in a conversation about the schools?' Because the feeling that my wife and I had was that a lot of our friends are having kids, and they were all saying, 'We really support public schools; we want to be able to send our kids to a public school,' but they didn't understand the mess that is going on with the school district and they didn't like it," Santana said.

It's a phenomenon that appears to be growing, with similar groups of nonparent school activists popping up all over neighborhoods where young, professional families are living - some of them producing huge investments for their local school.

It's a distinct departure from what young professionals have jokingly called the "five-year plan" - which is the choice many young families make, to enjoy city life until their children are old enough to start school and then move to the suburbs.

"More and more people in neighborhoods where maybe people would have looked for a magnet school, or thrown their hands in the charter-school lottery, which certainly a lot of people are still doing, want our neighborhood school to be a great one, and so we're investing time and resources into them," said Kristen Forbriger, engagement chair of PhillyCORE Leaders, a coalition of education leaders founded to foster a more connected education community.

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, has been meeting with these groups in an impromptu manner, and said they typically want to know how they can fundraise locally and ensure the money goes straight to their local school.

They've also inquired about the restrictions on what their fundraising can pay for.

"It's the most grass-roots organizing that you can imagine," Shorr said. "It usually starts out with a couple of friends who are interested in having their kids go to the local public school, but think the school probably needs a little more support."

They start recruiting neighbors, meet in houses or coffee shops, volunteer at the school and begin fundraising. And little by little, the grass-roots effort evolves.

"I think one way or another it has to do with all of us seeing education as the main driver in our own and our peers' ability to stay in the city long term," said Susanna Greenberg, who is also not a parent and is finishing up her second year of a three-year term on the board of Independence Charter School.

Greenberg said that in recent years, the charter school's board has been getting more members who are not parents.

"I think that makes a neat mix of people. The parents have a strong feel of the whole school because they have kids coming home every day talking about it. Those of us who don't have a little more professional distance," she said. "I think combined we can make great choices for the school."


A longer version of this article can be read at ph.ly/QoWSm on AxisPhilly.org, a nonprofit public-interest news organization.

 

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