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‘Abbott Elementary’ should shine more light on the real challenges facing Philly’s schools | Opinion

When I watch the show, I'm appalled, writes one Philly teacher. Because what’s really happening in my school and so many others around the district is hardly a laughing matter.

When the students start participating in a new online trend that causes disruption to the school, the teachers of Abbott Elementary band together to put an end to it.
When the students start participating in a new online trend that causes disruption to the school, the teachers of Abbott Elementary band together to put an end to it.Read moreChristopher Willard / ABC

A friend of mine likes to joke that I work at Abbott High.

After all, I teach in West Philadelphia, where the fictional school in ABCʼs hit sitcom Abbott Elementary is based. Like the showʼs protagonist, Janine Teagues, played by Phillyʼs own Quinta Brunson, I am quite loud and known to be a little too passionate about reading selections. I have experienced the everyday challenges portrayed on the show — staff shortages, facilities problems, overworked colleagues. And while I can appreciate a good joke as much as the next person, I must confess that when I watch the show, which concludes its first season next week, I am appalled. Whatʼs really happening throughout the district is hardly a laughing matter.

Letʼs not forget how we got here: Philly schools are the way they are because of years of racist and classist policymaking — the effects of which I witness every time I set foot in my classroom.

Because of the way schools are funded in Pennsylvania — through an overreliance on local property taxes — low-wealth school districts like Philadelphiaʼs have $4,800 less to spend per pupil than their wealthy counterparts in places like Lower Merion. There simply has not been enough money for capital infrastructure projects.

In January, during testimony in Harrisburg about the fairness of the stateʼs formula for funding public schools, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. testified that even when Philly students are able to graduate from high school on time, many of them “are really meeting a minimum standard because thatʼs all they had access to.” The typical school building was built in 1952, although some are much older. And many buildings in the district are plagued by lead, asbestos, and mold. One study conducted five years ago showed that the school system has $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance costs and no way to pay for it.

» READ MORE: Testimony in Pennsylvania’s school funding trial is over. What happens now?

Teachers see the effects of this lack of investment every day. Countless schools donʼt have a library, an adequate number of staff, or suitable mental support resources for teachers or students amid a surge of violence in our community. Most schools are not just missing the occasional reading rug, they are missing environmentally safe classrooms.

In 2018, The Inquirer published an investigation on the environmental quality of Philadelphia classrooms. The summary found tainted soil, asbestos, lead paint, mold, and other asthma triggers throughout the district. When I used to work at a vocational high school in North Philadelphia, I used to hold my breath as white asbestos dust floated from the exposed pipe overhead in the bathroom. I couldnʼt wash my hands because the water — tainted with who-knows-what — burned to the touch. And thatʼs just one building.

At another school where I worked, the temperature controls on the buildingʼs heating system were broken, and I had students faint twice in the middle of a lesson. Most days there, I spent my lunch break seated in front of the open door of a wood-paneled Kenmore mini fridge that I kept by my desk trying to catch some cool air.

Abbott Elementary cannot be untangled from its roots in Philadelphia — and all of the intricacies of our city. But unlike other sitcoms such as Kenya Barris’ Black-ish, Abbott Elementary fails to fully represent the complexity of policies and societal realities affecting its characters within a humorous context. Brunson, who is also the creator of the show, claims that she hopes the show helps to raise awareness about the problems — from poor facilities to instances of gun violence — faced by urban schools everywhere.

“‘Abbott Elementary’ cannot be untangled from its roots in Philadelphia — and all of the intricacies of our city.”

Lydia Kulina-Washburn

“We just have to talk about it,” Brunson said during a February interview with NPRʼs Fresh Air. “I think it deserves the attention of this country because itʼs happening in this country.” Oddly enough, many systemic issues have hardly received any airtime on her show. Community gun violence isn’t mentioned. And asbestos doesn’t have the same comedic effect as a flickering hall light.

When I speak to colleagues throughout the district, they usually tell me how tired they are. Philadelphia teachers are tired of teaching in 90-degree classrooms, breaking up fights in crowded hallways in the middle of class, and worrying for our own physical well-being and safety every time we clock in for work. District teachers are burning out.

A few weeks ago, the producers of Abbott Elementary presented the elementary school that Brunson attended with a $40,000 check for school supplies. It was a nice gesture, but glue sticks donʼt fix falling asbestos or faulty radiators. Scissors donʼt prevent student stabbings. First aid kits donʼt contain mental health resources for students with trauma. And a stapler canʼt put weary, burned-out professionals back together.

Lydia Kulina-Washburn has taught in Philadelphia public schools for seven years.