Helen Gym (D) is an at-large Philadelphia City Council member and vocal education advocate. Her goal in public office has been to to tackle widespread poverty through creating a quality public education system – the same system she taught in and put her children through.
Philadelphia Neighborhoods spoke with Councilwoman Gym on the phone to discuss the intersection of income inequality, mobility and education in Philadelphia.
What are your beliefs about education and how were those formed?
HG: On a very personal level, my father came to this country with absolutely nothing, no family. He struggled, certainly, got his first job at age 39. He worked hard at his job, he retired and sent his kids to Ivy League and Stanford institutions. He is living a life that is sustainable and joyful. This is the country that helped him do that, and it still can be a country that does that.
The idea that you can start one place and end up another in this country is absolutely a vision of what it means to be an American and to have American ideals. Your path is not fixed in life.
We are increasingly in a country and in a global society where our economic situations are becoming fixed and we should stop that. We should resist that as much as possible because it’s un-American, because it’s inhumane and because it’s bad economics and bad politics.
Where does income inequality come into play in the education system in Philadelphia?
There are numerous studies including constitutional lawsuits that indicate educational funding, race and poverty are directly correlated. If a populous is poor, it is likely that their school is less funded. That has a large part to do with the fact that the majority of funding for schools in the state of Pennsylvania and across the country has largely functioned on the wealth of land in a particular locality.
In Philadelphia where we are the poorest large city in the US, where we are a little more than two-thirds of capacity in terms of our housing, we have to come up with programs to help folks as they struggle to meet their utility and property tax bills. If our school funding system is reliant on the wealth of our tax base, we’re going to suffer. There’s just inequality upon inequality and of course it impacts our neediest children.
Where does funding fit in?
We have a state that is the worst in the nation when it comes to inequities between the poorest and wealthiest school districts.
One of the biggest problems for the school district is around city funding and what the state is going to do to fund our schools. Clearly, there’s enormous threats at the federal level as well. We probably have one of the most anti-education secretaries, certainly in public education. It’s someone who is lowering the bar every single day on the right to a quality public school for all kids.
Threats at the federal level are already clearing out funding for education budgets. People should be frightened if they have kids, or are hoping to have one, or any college kids today that are hoping to pay off debt when they graduate.
How does this funding environment affect public school students?
The reality is they’re not working for the majority of young people. For a lot of our young people, especially when they get to the high school level, there needs to be a much more holistic assessment of their needs.
One of the things we focus on a lot in my time in office is to restore back some support services for young people in these schools. That includes insuring that they’ve got breakfast in the morning, that there’s a social worker that is working at the school and helping families connect with services, that we’re figuring out supports for young people who experience homelessness. That we’re working at putting nurses and counsellors back in all the schools.
It’s not a solution, but it is trying to move us away from starting at points that our young people aren’t at.
What initiatives would drive schools in that direction?
Expanding the kinds of measurements by which we can measure progress. If we take only a look at test data, and start to determine a school’s quality based on that data, then we’re really not going to get to the heart of what we need to do to stabilize and fix our neighborhood high schools.
I think we need to look at the high schools according to much broader metrics that take a look at student need and also the stability of the high school. We have to move away from the idea that schools should only be based on test data that only takes a picture of a child’s learning one day at one moment in time, and absent of other concepts.
As a whole, what is your biggest concern about education in Philadelphia?
My biggest concern is about a vision for a school district at this time. People really do have to have a sense of vision around what a school district should be able to do, who it serves amidst a complicated landscape. I am interested in people who have the belief that public schools matter, that they can do a lot of work, that there’s a lot that they have to do. That includes a vision for neighborhood high schools, for GED programs, for immigrant families, for a lot of our people who are vulnerable.
Do people have a sense of public will, and commitment to making these goals happen? That has been one of my most important jobs I think, is to have people understand that struggling institutions are not permanent. They can change dramatically with investment and disinvestment. So, my job is to really get people to invest. I need a big vision for the school district that people believe in.
– Text and photo by Brianna Spause.