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Bashing neighborhood schools isn’t the right way to talk about Philly’s new special-admissions policies | Opinion

It stings to hear that people would move out of the city rather than attend a school our children show up to every day.

Students walk to classes between periods at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.
Students walk to classes between periods at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

There is probably one single thing that aligns all educational advocates. That’s ensuring that parents’ and students’ voices are heard. It is critical for building and maintaining school communities that truly serve every student. But parent engagement that focuses on a single school, student, or policy can sometimes create messaging that perpetuates harm.

Earlier this month, at the Board of Education’s monthly meeting, numerous parents and students spoke out against the changes being made to the school selection process. They continued on Wednesday during a City Council hearing, called by Republican City Councilmember David Oh. Many speakers mentioned neighborhood schools. Sadly, none of the speakers discussed these pillars of their community with anything other than dismissal and ridicule. These schools — which are abundant with loving teachers and staff, convenient, and required to welcome all students without applications, test scores, or lotteries — were mentioned as the fate all of the speakers were trying to avoid.

At the same meeting, we also heard from student organizers that in their day-to-day experience at special admission schools, teachers and staff use the threat of sending students back to “their neighborhood school” as a push for them to keep their grades and attendance up and as an incentive for good behavior.

We hope it was not the intention of the speakers to disparage and harm the students, teachers, and staff who show up every day at Philly’s neighborhood schools — but they did. It stings to hear that people would move out of the city rather than attend a school our children show up to every day.

» READ MORE: Philly schools changed special admissions process in the name of equity, but some parents say it’s penalizing kids

There is plenty of blame to lay at the feet of our state lawmakers and the School District’s leaders for the conditions and state of our neighborhood schools, but we can’t forget the role of parents, caregivers, and students.

The majority of the admission-based schools have substantial parent groups that organize and fund many of the shortcomings left by dismal state funding and lack of urgency in addressing facilities and resource issues at schools by the School District. While those efforts are laudable, they have also widened the inequities between schools by bestowing piles of cash on some schools while leaving others without much-needed support.

At the meeting, there was no acknowledgment or advocacy for new facilities, equipment, or equity for neighborhood schools by any of the speakers who disparaged them. If the number of people who are fighting the changes to the special admissions policy showed up and asked these neighborhood schools what they needed and helped them get it, it would be a real start at changing the inequity that plagues our district.

Additionally, amid all the outrage over the proposed change to the admission process, many people are missing other points in this discussion.

So far, we have not heard any meaningful conversation about how students from “underrepresented” (also known as “systematically excluded and institutionally oppressed”) zip codes will be supported upon their admission to these special admission schools. The School District has a dreadful track record of supporting students of color, who are often marginalized at special-admission schools. Relatedly, a school like Carver is not often acknowledged for its role as a historically Black institution that has done an excellent job of providing a supportive space where Black students thrive. Nor does there seem to be any effort to learn from neighborhood schools like Strawberry Mansion and Furness that have worked on creating close-knit communities that support the whole student.

As fierce advocates for more parent and student voices in every part of our school system, we believe that the loud chorus of outrage is drowning out the real work that is needed to truly address inequity and transform our schools. Decreasing inequity across our schools begins at the neighborhood level and that is where focus should be — not on a fight about admissions for a few students.

Zakia Royster-Morris is the parent of a student at a neighborhood school and a member of the Our City Our Schools coalition. Shakeda Gaines is the president of the Philadelphia Home & School Council.