One of the Philadelphia Education Fund’s main goals is for all young people to have access to opportunity, not just the lucky ones. According to President and CEO Darren Spielman, the vision of the organization, which has been around for more than 30 years, is for all students to graduate high school with the opportunity to access college and careers. The group aids students and teachers through workshops touching on everything from creating an engaging classroom to getting through the college admissions process. The group also hosts community meetings to spark important conversations about Philadelphia education. The meeting on Sept. 11 gave members of the community the chance to voice their most pressing concerns to Superintendent William Hite, who is leading the district through a severe budget crisis. Spielman explained the Education Fund and his hopes for the future of the Philadelphia public schools.
What are some of your daily tasks?
Working with my leadership team to make sure everyone knows what they’re suppose to be doing and what they need from me to remove obstacles and help them get things done. Part of my daily tasks include facing with the external world, including other leaders in City Hall, the district, other nonprofits and other educators. I also reach out to folks, whether they are institutional or individuals, who might be able to support the organization and the good work we do. It breaks down to: management internally and impact externally.
Do you work with students on an individual basis or more so with the schools?
Both, actually. We work with several thousand students a year directly in schools in Philadelphia, starting in ninth grade. We also work with grown-ups in those schools so that they have a built-in system to show students a pathway to college.
What challenges face the Philadelphia Education Fund with the start of the 2014-15 school year?
There’s a marathon to be run to fix public education; having money just gets the schools to the starting line, and they don’t even have that. It’s not right that every year it is our [district’s] annual rite of passage that we have a major funding crisis. This is not how it works in other school districts all over the country, apart from a few. Every leader and educator only has a certain amount of energy they can give. When you have to spend a large percentage of it just to make sure you have the dollars to operate, that’s energy you can’t spend improving schools and providing opportunities to students. At the Philadelphia Education Fund, we are looking to provide assistance in bridging the gap caused by this budget crisis.
What can be done to fix these issues?
We need a fair funding formula so that money is distributed in a rational way across the state. At the Education Fund, we’re educators who are developing teachers and supporting them as they grow so that they can change the lives of students. We are about building paths for them so that they can stay in school and access college and career. We see that teacher morale is low, but there’s no money. That’s very hard and people feel beat up. We are interested in figuring out how we can fight against that.
What specific changes within the schools could happen if the Legislature approves a $2-per-pack cigarette tax in Philadelphia?
Last year, we started in a dismal state and that was no place to be. The tax only gets us back that state. If we had real investment, we could get towards transforming public schools. We could have really rich STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities for kids in the city. We have a lot of STEM-focused employers and great kids, but they don’t get access to opportunity when they leave school. We can make changes that will impact the city on behalf of young people so they can be energized critical thinkers and be able to take those skills with them. I will say that money alone just gets you to the starting line. Without the money, there’s nothing you can do. It’s like showing up to a track meet without your spikes.
–Text and photos by Lara Witt and Lindsey Murray