Are you there God? It's me, Bartram

Posted: April 14, 2014

CHAIRESE HOLMAN and Patrina Anderson took seats at the end of opposite rows inside Bartram High School's auditorium.

The two mothers didn't know one another but almost as soon as Holman and I started talking about her 17-year-old son's struggles to get a good education at the violence-plagued school, Anderson chimed in.

Anderson, who lives nearby but whose daughter goes to elementary school, was there to talk about Bartram students wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. She was a student at the school in 1999, when another student shot an assistant principal trying to break up a fight.

"Nothing's changed," she said.

This was Thursday night and the two were part of a community meeting on the recent highly publicized violent incidents at the school, including a couple of lunchtime brawls and an assault on a conflict-resolution specialist by a 17-year-old student. Yes, a man charged to keep the peace got his skull fractured.

At the start of the meeting, God got a shout-out by one of the speakers. It probably wasn't a bad idea. Given the disagreements over what caused the problems at Bartram, and what it's going to take to fix them, divine intervention may be the only solution. And please, baby Jesus, keep what happened at Bartram from playing out at other understaffed and consolidated schools.

The school's a mess, Holman and Anderson said.

It's not that bad, a ninth-grader told the audience.

"We need more security," one man said.

Schools aren't supposed to be prisons, said another.

"It's on the parents," many shouted in an audience made up mostly of politicians and community activists.

It's on the parents to a point, said the Rev. Darien Thomas. But it's also poverty, lack of jobs and job training.

Like I said, little agreement. But, hey, things are looking up - thanks in part to what I can only imagine is a glass case full of money somewhere that says, "Break in case of emergency." Because, suddenly, previously unavailable resources have poured into the school.

Walls have been painted. The place has been scrubbed from top to bottom. More police have been assigned. Smoke detectors have been installed in bathrooms. A slew of politicians and community activists are at the ready - many pitching their own programs and agendas as solutions.

Superintendent William Hite said he's committed to giving the school whatever resources it needs to get back on track.

"They couldn't do that stuff before," Holman said quietly.

I have to admit, I wondered the same thing. If we're going to warehouse children into overcrowded, underfunded, sometimes dangerous schools, couldn't we at least make them the prettiest warehouses possible with a fresh coat of paint?

People weren't too happy about the last few columns I've written laying the fiasco of Bartram High at our collective feet. I missed the point, they said. The true villains are the district, the School Reform Commission, the mayor, the superintendent, the newbie principal . . .

The list of the accountable is long. And the failings of Philly schools run deep. Not surprisingly, Bartram's out-of-control environment and the under-education of its students match up with some of the most telling pathologies in the census tract that the school is supposed to be serving. The neighborhood's $30,581 median household income is below state average, as is its $31,750 median house value. Unemployment is above state average; about 40 percent live below the federal poverty level, according to Pew's 2013 "The State of the City" report.

Inside the school, 100 percent of the students are listed as economically disadvantaged in the school district's school profile. The school has performed below state averages in reading and math. In SAT scores, they scored in the bottom 10 among Philadelphia district-run and charter schools.

Bartram's environment breeds troubles that go way beyond the teenagers who attend the school today.

But I've said all that before. What hasn't been said as much, and what we all know, is that the dilemma Bartram poses also explains not only why people leave this city, but why even when they can't leave, they pull their kids out of public schools the first chance they get.

The two moms had different ideas about what needed to be done to improve Bartram and other city schools, but they were united on one thing. If they had a chance to take their kids out of Philly public schools, they'd do it.

"In a heartbeat," Anderson said.


Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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