How can public schools play a pivotal role in revitalizing the idea of broad democratic participation? This is a pressing question for YUC, considering the mounting economic and social challenges facing working class communities of color throughout Philadelphia, along with ongoing efforts to rapidly transform the very neighborhoods our young people call home into exclusive wealthy enclaves. We see the plight of public schools and the predicament of the city’s poor and working class neighborhoods as intrinsically linked; when neighborhood public schools are closed, so is the collective future of those living in close proximity. Therefore, reconfiguring public schools as community development institutions is crucial to ensuring students and parents improve the impact and outcomes of the education system, while creating civic spaces that help working class communities of color maintain a foothold in Philadelphia. One way to expedite this process is the expansion of democratic participation in school governance at the hyperlocal level.
Currently, the School District is developing recommendations for the role and powers of School Advisory Councils (SACs), and wants to implement these advisory bodies district-wide. Though we see any attempt to break away from the top-down practices typically displayed by the District as positive, the revised SACs will lack true governing capability, rendering them impotent and unable to offer transformative opportunities for the very stakeholders whose voices and proposals matter the most – students and their parents.
Creating community-based school councils with real governing powers within schools has the potential to not only revolutionize the activity and culture within schools; they will also set a standard for civic participation that will encourage parents and students to extend their efforts beyond the school and into the surrounding neighborhood. Our consciousness and dreams are shaped by our environment and daily actions. If working class communities of color seize the opportunity to oversee difficult decisions concerning the operation and vision of their schools; working collectively to transform them into institutions where their children’s imaginations are celebrated, not crushed; they will inevitably look around at their neighborhood’s vacant lots and dilapidated buildings and begin imagining all the possibilities these spaces hold. They will potentially re-engage civic discussion about the future of the city as it is tied to the futures their children hold.
At YUC, we are currently calling for Community Control, or the right of our communities to be self-determined and have real decision-making power within a school building. In order for this to begin taking shape citywide, the District SAC bodies must have the power to address the following:
- Curriculum Design: Parents, students and educators must have a space where they deliberate on how the school’s curriculum meets the needs of their student body. This makes certain that what students learn in the classroom is both relevant and provides concrete support and skills for navigating the world outside school walls.
- School Climate Policy: Students and their families know what young people go through every day outside of school, especially in economically depressed neighborhoods. Restorative approaches and policies take student’s experiences of trauma into account when addressing climate issues.
- Administrative Oversight: In order to fully bridge the priority gap between educational spaces and the needs and concerns of working class communities, administrators will be institutionally accountable to parents and community members, which should include a system of annual evaluation for each principal.
- Participatory School Budgeting: Parents and students will take an active role in determining how a school’s discretionary spending is allocated; this fosters a true sense of ownership and stewardship that moves community members beyond the role of passive consumers of services.
We need to see schools as the first places we learn how to be citizens; how to actively participate in shaping our communities and ourselves. This can only be learned through practice, by taking risks and grappling with hard choices, not by simply offering input. Right now, there is a piercing cry for racial and economic justice increasing in volume daily from working people, especially from our most marginalized neighborhoods. We cannot ignore this; for if we do, we will lose entire swaths of Philadelphia to deep despair leading to a fiery anger with the capacity to tear our social fabric to shreds. We have to open things up to allow more voices to have a say. In essence, we have to go back to the basics of democracy. We can start by establishing community control for all District schools. It is only fitting thing to happen considering Philadelphia’s place in history as the birthplace of our democracy.
Youth United for Change