As part of the process of studying what services the School District of Philadelphia actually offers the city's children, City Councilwoman Helen Gym will be hosting three community meetings around Philly next month to get input from the public.
It's all part of a process the first-term councilwoman said is intended to help the District figure out its priorities while City Council prepares for budgeting season.
"We’ve gotten too abstract about funding and accountability. ... We’ve lost sight about what concretely we can do on a school district-wide level," Gym told Metro. "We need to drill down and be more specific and hold the district to their promises. We can unify our city and our school district around a common set of priorities and objectives."
As City Council looks into providing more funding to the School District, Gym, long a local advocate for public education before winning a Council-at-Large seat last year, said the city and district need to work out where that money would do the most good.
Gym said she was shocked to learned at a City Council hearing Thursday on conditions in public schools that there are 174 teacher vacancies in the school district. Multiplied by an average class size of 30, that adds up to about 5,200 students without teachers at all.
"That's a pretty shocking and unacceptable figure. I would say that is extremely unusual," Gym said. "These are essential subject areas, like biology, physics and vocal music. We have fifth graders and third graders without teachers ... They’re absolutely an integral part of a child's education. If you don’t have a teacher in front of you, we can’t even begin to talk about learning or standards, so we start there."
Discussing how funds could hypothetically be used, Gym said that it would cost around $7 million to get a nurse in every Philly public school.
"We are talking about something that feels like it should be doable. We need to figure out how to make it a priority, how to make it happen," she said.
While Gym praised her City Council colleagues for their support, and didn't criticize School District leaders like Superintendent William Hite, she said the district, which is technically under the leadership of the School Reform Commission, lacks clear direction.
"We just have a lot of hands all over the school district right now. It's not an entity that feels like it's driving its own destiny... It's being buffered around by whatever political winds are blowing hardest," Gym said.
The upcoming public community meetings will be held at 5:30 p.m. around the city and Gym said she wants to hear from different communities about where breakdowns in the School District are occuring.
The meetings are currently scheduled for: March 7 at an undecided location in West Philly; March 8 at an undecided location in South Philly; and March 15 at Thomas Edison High School at 2nd and Luzerne streets.
Below, watch video of testimony from Karen Lynch, Chief of Support Services for the School District of Philadelphia, as Gym asks whether public schools are violating the Pennsylvania state code by not providing enough gifted education.