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Two Philly students now have seats on the school board

A student from CAPA and one from KCAPA are the 2022-23 student board representatives.

Sophia Roach, (left) a senior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts and Love Speech, a senior at the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, are the two new student representatives to the Philadelphia Board of Education for the 2022-23 school year.
Sophia Roach, (left) a senior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts and Love Speech, a senior at the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, are the two new student representatives to the Philadelphia Board of Education for the 2022-23 school year.Read moreCourtesy Philadelphia school board

Two new school board members took seats at the Philadelphia School District table Thursday night, promising to center the voices of 114,000 students.

Sophia Roach, a senior at the Philadelphia High School of Creative and Performing Arts, and Love Speech, a senior at the Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts, will be the school board’s student representatives for the 2022-23 school year.

Student representatives do not have voting power, but they take part in all board discussions and gather information from peers across the city; last year’s board representatives helped select a new superintendent.

Roach, a creative writing major at CAPA, is a founding member of the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and editor-in-chief of the Bullhorn, the citywide student newspaper. She works as an intern at the Mütter Museum studying the effect of gun violence on Philadelphia youth, and CAPA principal Joanne Beaver said she was “a thought partner for me as a principal.”

“Sophia is a thoughtful observer of the social environment around her,” Beaver said. “She ensures that what is right is always at the forefront of what we do.”

Speech, a gifted artist, participates in a program connecting college and career that gives her workplace exposure. She’s also taking all her senior-year classes at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Patricia McDermott, KCAPA principal, said Speech has “a strong moral compass and a drive to help others. She is thoughtful in her words and actions and often helps other students in her classes in a way that is both supportive and overwhelmingly kind.”

Mayor Jim Kenney hailed the new student representatives — the fifth pair of students to take the job.

When the city returned the district to local control in 2018, Kenney said the aim was to hold him and others accountable for the district’s performance.

“Our student board representatives play an integral role in this process,” the mayor said.

Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. interviewed Roach, Speech, and three other finalists for the job, chosen from among 21 qualified applicants from district and charter schools.

“I know they are very passionate, dedicated individuals,” Watlington said. “In fact, my sense is they are possessed of tenacity.”

Roach told the board she was driven by a desire to represent students “who deserve to be truly heard and not just seen through demographic data and standardized test scores.”

Speech said she wanted “to advocate for all students and give them the best possible chance to succeed and enjoy their educational experience.”

The board also heard from Watlington and members of his cabinet on the start of the school year.

Reggie McNeil, chief operating officer, said each of the district’s thousands of classrooms was cleaned and ready for the 2022-23 year, which began Aug. 29. He also said the district has made progress on the trash pickup problems that plagued it last year.

And though it is not experiencing the transportation problems it did last year, the on-time arrival rate is still lagging: 71% of school buses get kids to class on time.

Asked what the goal for on-time performance was, McNeil said that while 100% would be ideal, the district is shooting for 80%, given that “we deal with callouts, we have to deal with accidents that happen around the city.”

Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, said the year began with 98% of teaching jobs filled. The district has more work to do in other, non-instructional categories: 92% of nurse jobs are filled, 71% of bus chauffeurs, 69% of building engineers, 88% of general cleaners, 82% of food service staff, 80% of special education assistants, and 76% of student climate staff.

Special education assistants are paid $22,735 annually (up from $15,000). Board member Cecelia Thompson questioned whether that was enough to attract candidates to that difficult and crucial job.

“Is that a fair living wage for an adult for the amount of work that these special education assistants do?” Thompson asked. School board president Joyce Wilkerson said the district wanted to pay a living wage, and said it was a matter for collective bargaining.

Several speakers brought up leveling, the district practice of moving teachers weeks after the school year begins to reflect shifts in enrollment. (The school system has rebranded it this year, calling it “enrollment driven resource review.”)

The district held off on leveling last year as students returned to in-person instruction after a fully virtual year for the vast majority of the school system. Leveling is a practice suburban and better-funded school systems do not engage in.

But Gwendolyn Roth, a seventh grader at Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties, said leveling was unacceptable, full stop. Kearny has lost many teachers to leveling during her years at the school, she said.

“There aren’t many teachers who teach the same grade two years in a row because somebody got leveled and they had to fill in,” Roth told the board. “Basically, when a teacher is leveled, the first six weeks of the year are wasted as far as class time goes, and there are disruptions with our schedule, like lunch and specials.”

Parent Caroline Thorn said leveling, which is scheduled to begin next week, “isn’t fair. There is no good time to be doing this, but right now would be very damaging.”