Helen Gym is, in a word, transformative.
A long-time education reform advocate, Gym’s list of successes for Philadelphia public schools and its students has only become more impressive since her involvement with a 2010 federal civil rights case to end the harassment and bullying of Asian-American students at South Philly High School.
Since her swearing-in ceremony in January, Gym has successfully secured clean drinking water fountains in every public school building stemming from her advocacy against lead-contaminated water in schools, has called police use of force in schools into question, and is working toward ensuring universal pre-kindergarten in the school district.
Last week, Gym attended a meeting with members of the Department of Human Services and activists to discuss youth homelessness, and heard testimony from young people who had lived on the streets of Philadelphia. Metro caught up with the councilwoman.
You’re 200-some days into your first term, councilwoman. What has the transition from an advocate to someone on the inside in City Hall been like for you?
Right now, I don’t think there’s been a huge difference. When I came in, we were extremely focused on what we wanted to do. Being here inside City Council, the opportunities have opened up a lot of spaces that we haven’t traditionally been able to access. That was extremely empowering.
But the other thing that I think has been really exciting about being in City Council is that it opens up other opportunities. It pushes you to work beyond your traditional areas. I think what’s good is that the skill set that [I] tried to develop over the years doing a lot of activism and organizing is for me, right now, the right skill set that helps me fit in in City Council.
We are facing the start of the school year, which has historically been a very chaotic time in Philadelphia. In 2012 through 2014, schools were shutting down, funds weren’t being released, there weren’t enough textbooks. Have you noticed in the last couple of years — perhaps because of changes in our state government — that it will be less chaotic this year?
I have a hard time with this, because I think last year with the teacher vacancy issues that we experience, probably put me in terms of where I thought the school district was, probably right at the bottom. Like, right back in 2013 when we closed down the schools. That’s how chaotic I think last year was.
So to come out of that and say, “Oh do you think this year will be better?” Maybe. But there’s so much to unpack about what went wrong last year, and there are the same leadership folks in place. The accountability [and] communication lines have to be stronger. I don’t think it’s a matter of saying, “Hey, let’s try this and see what happens.” I’m over that. I’m not interested in experiments, I’m not interested in “nothing can be worse,” because we found that over four years, things get worse, and we lose our eye on some really core issues.
Just because you’re not hearing about it enough, I am way more outraged and upset over how I’m looking at schools right now. Things have got to get done, and someone’s got to push on what the priorities are. For me, that would be teaching and learning in the classroom, safety in our schools and basic levels of humane facilities for children.
I’m not going to give predictions or Pollyannish pronouncements about these kinds of things. I think there is a lot of work to do. And people have to buckle down and get super serious about what our priorities are going to be; we’re not going to able to do everything, but we have got to fix some of the staggering abuses that happened as early as June.
The district's problems are vast and varied. Problems like the health and wellness of students and student achievement. What’s your guiding ethos in solving them?
I think it’s engagement. We’ve got to really engage with these schools; we can’t say, "Oh, well there’s a superintendent and a SRC so they’ve got to fix it, or City Council just has to fund it, or parents just have to send their kids to school or kids just have to show up." This is not the way that we accomplish schools. I think that people have to engage on multiple levels.
I think something the district struggles with right now is a vision for itself, so we’re really trying to work hard to get a vision that engages folks, whether you’re a community member, whether you’re a 20-year teacher or a two-year teacher in the school system, whether you’re a student. We have to figure out the ways that make people feel like engaging will make a difference, engaging will change things, engaging is going to make sure that these situations don’t continue.
But you've also accomplished a lot in the last year.
There are things to celebrate. We do have those little hydration station in schools, we have a full-time nurse — we've never had a full-time nurse. In every single school, five days a week. I don't remember the last time we've had one. That is a really great thing and I wish that we could celebrate that more. We're eliminating split grades and really abusive conditions, and we're focusing in on teacher vacancies. Those are really low-level things but it took a long time to get there, and it took a concentrated effort.
People have to remember that this is a big system: 10,000 teachers, 140,000 students, 200 schools opening, buses, food to be served … it's a lot. Amidst all of that, let's distill down what we want, let's go for it and then keep moving, and keep pulling this district up. Over the course of time, it'll reward itself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.