The 18-year-old girl sat in front of me and calmly recounted why she was living with her uncle and not her parents. She had lived with relatives and various foster parents during the early part of her life, then moved back in with her parents. But that was a disaster, she told me. Her mother abused her and she ended up living from relative to relative.
What amazed me about Zalisa Fanning’s story is how matter-of-factly she described in detail how different her life experiences were from those of her peers.
“Basically, I’m my own parent, and I think I’m doing stuff beyond my years,” she said.
Zalisa is one of 5,000 students in the Philadelphia school district classified as a homeless student - one who doesn’t have a permanent home and lives from relative to relative, or friend to friend, according to Al Quarles, Regional Coordinator of the Pennsylvania Homeless Children’s Initiative. Sometimes these students have turned 18 and have aged out of the foster care system. The PA Homeless Children’s Initiative provides students with resources, like money for school uniforms, college tours, and lessons on how to write resumes.
The issue of homeless students is just one of the many challenges confronting the School District of Philadelphia (SDP.) The most immediate issue facing the district is budget cuts, resulting in 1,500 teachers losing their jobs and the cancellation of all-day kindergarten. Al Quarles recently emailed me that the cuts have slashed the number of summer jobs available to students in his program to just 15.
View more videos at: http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com.
Money isn’t the entire solution to the age-old problems in urban education – the achievement gap, attracting quality teachers, low test scores, and discipline issues. But it does seem to be an integral part of the solution in a school district like Philadelphia, in which 70 percent of the students come from homes below the poverty line.
For instance, under its Renaissance Schools Initiative, the SDP earmarked 16 schools as failing at the beginning of the school year. Officials poured $1 million dollars into each of these schools to turn them around. But transforming the schools isn’t just about money. It’s also about spending the money smartly and efficiently.
At Ethel Allen, school officials cleaned house. They brought in a new principal and told the teachers they had to re-apply for their jobs. About half the teachers returned to the school. Among them was Cheryl Mahoney. The sixth grade teacher told me frankly that she had originally chosen Ethel Allen because the school has a parking lot. But when the district designated Ethel Allen as a failing school, Mahoney felt empowered.
“When I got here, I realized there was a tremendous need for growth, a tremendous opportunity for growth. So I got to work,” said Mahoney.
District officials also brought in a social worker and a full-time nurse. They are necessary, SDP Superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman explained, because many of the city’s children rely on their schools to provide them with health care, social services and nourishment.
“We’re teaching the whole child. We’re not just teaching the brain, and we need to address the needs of those children outside of the classroom that they will bring into the classroom so that they can focus when they get before that teacher,” said Ackerman.
The school also focused on parent engagement. Ackerman says that parental involvement in a child’s education is vital to the child’s success. The district has a Parent University, which offers SDP parents hundreds of courses allowing them to develop job skills, or simply study subjects to help their children with their homework. And Parent University courses can be applied towards an associate’s degree.
At Ethel Allen, parents are part of an advisory council. They also accompany students on trips to the city and its cultural attractions, which Principal Woolworth Davis says exposes students to a life beyond their own. He hopes that will prompt them to aspire to college and professional success.
The school also emphasizes college to these kindergarten - sixth graders. Each homeroom is named after the teacher’s alma mater and college paraphernalia can be seen on hallways throughout the school. Teachers weave references to college throughout class discussions.
The results seem positive. Quantitatively, state test scores are up in reading and math from last year (though fifth grade math scores dipped significantly, from 27.5% to 8.1%). Student-on-student assaults are down from last year, but not from 2008 or 2009. Attendance this year is up from the last several years.
Qualitatively, teachers and students notice dramatic changes. I talked to two students who said just last year they would get into fights and run the hallways, but now they are A-students who aspire to go to college. The difference, they say, is that they feel their teachers truly care about them and seem invested in their success.
Teachers also say Ethel Allen is a different school than it was last year. Children are engaged and orderly, and teachers told me there is an energy and hope in the air that was absent in years past. Much more work remains to be done, but perhaps Ethel Allen can provide some insight into ideas that work.
The challenges in urban education seem daunting, even overwhelming at times. But there are whispers of hope. One of them is Zalisa Fanning. The teenager, who told me how mentally exhausted she was from dealing with “stuff that a teenager shouldn’t have to deal with,” found out shortly after our talk that she had been accepted to Penn State. She’ll be attending the university in the fall.
Aditi Roy is a news anchor and education reporter at NBC 10 News in Philadelphia, Penn.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.