The School District of Philadelphia is going to receive approximately $1.2 billion in federal aid after the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was passed in March. On April 13, Councilmember Helen Gym held a virtual roundtable with Philadelphia School District Board of Education members and students from around the city to discuss where the money should be allocated.
Students had the chance to discuss the issues they experience in a normal year, and specifically this year with COVID.
One testimony came from Strawberry Mansion High School student Mya Rivers. Rivers is a transgender student who faced discrimination and bullying throughout her time at the school.
“Transgender, or gay people, or straight people don’t have support at all,” Rivers said. “We don’t have support. We got to give ourselves support. We gotta get up and make sure we go to school everyday or make sure we bring home good grades, but how can we do that with no support?”
Rivers expressed the need for more support to the students, of all races and genders.
Gisselle Orsini, a junior at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, made a similar plea to the roundtable that Rivers did.
“We cannot learn if we are not mentally sound,” Orsini said.
Mental health was a frequent topic from many of the students. Balancing school and the pandemic has resulted in worsening mental health.
Annissa Wheeler-White is a current student at Parkway Center City Middle College. She talked about how her attention span, her overall effort, and her ability to do homework and projects have decreased compared to a normal year. She felt her standards lowered from As to Cs.
“I felt like everything had been taken out of me,” Wheeler-White said. “I was really drained of everything. I felt there was no point of continuing on, trying to get good grades if the pandemic is going to ruin everything else for me.”
She also mentioned that she speaks for more students than just herself. Wheeler-White is the only member of her groups of friends that was able to get into college.
Emotional support was another topic that came up during the meeting, but other students focused on other issues, such as housing for students.
“As a houseless student in the School District of Philadelphia, there are three things that have become blatantly obvious to me,” said Fatima Hmada, a senior at Science Leadership Academy. “One, the City does not care to protect us. Two, the City views us as a threat. And three, the City will use any means necessary to ensure that we are continued to be subjected to state violence.”
She presented her testimony with a fire and passion that is hard to match. Hmada ended her time with a sharp message.
“Each and everyday vulnerable children are forced to wander the streets at night unsure where their next meal may come from or whose house they must sleep at next,” Hmada said. “These crimes are vile and despicable, and they shake me to my very core. At 15 years old I lost my innocence that makes a child spark, and the city of Philadelphia could not have cared less.”
Hmada and students across the city shared how they are fed up with the City’s lack of support, both physically and emotionally. Schools lack resources that are necessities.
“While the district themselves cannot provide housing because there is no way to get reimbursement for any of that money, but there ought to be a way that there’s a better link between our students and the departments that we have that deal with housing,” Julia Danzy, a member of the Philadelphia School District Board of Education, said. “That can better facilitate our young people being able to be in stable environments.”
Colleen Pan is a sophomore at Northeast High School. Pan recounted the lack of cleanliness at the school and the lack of resources available to students and parents.
“My Spanish teacher got a phone call from the main office during class and asked if any Chinese speaking student would help a Chinese parent to translate for them,” Pan said. “I went. I was very happy I was able to help others. At the same time I wondered, ‘Why wasn’t there a translator or BCA in the school at that time?’”
Several students echoed their peers’ concerns while others voiced additional issues. Councilmembers took time to respond and offered support and understanding for the issues raised by the students.
“Children should not be punished for things they can’t control, or even things that they can control,” Reginald Streater, a newly appointed school board member, said.
Councilmember Helen Gym offered her support by reaffirming that the city will make things right.
“We heard loud and clear that we will be held accountable in terms of what we do and not just what we say about ensuring we can meet student needs and get them to every young person across schools,” told Gym.
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