SEVENTH-GRADER Seandra Berry crowded into the library at Edwin M. Stanton Elementary yesterday for a visit with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Then, flanked by her peers and teachers, she told Duncan that Stanton students need more funding for basic supplies, technology, a full-time nurse and a counselor.
"All schools in the country deserve to have equal opportunities," Berry said.
Duncan joined Superintendent William Hite Jr., acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera and local community and school leaders at Stanton, in South Philadelphia, for an open discussion at 11 a.m. on the importance of public school funding.
Duncan said he was thrilled to be in Philadelphia to visit Stanton, at 17th and Christian streets, and noted that he also made the trip to call on the state to "step up and fund education, [the underfunding] is not fair, it is not just."
Duncan told the crowded library that in comparison to other states, Pennsylvania was doing the worst job at funding education and that systemic inequalities kept the state from being a leader in education.
Stanton, which the School Reform Commission sought to close in 2012 because of low enrollment, remained open thanks to its partnerships with community-based and local nonprofits.
Vicki Ellis, executive director of the school district's Office of Strategic Partnerships, talked about how Stanton survived through strong alliances with the faith-based cooperative Bainbridge House.
"Stanton has improved organically through leadership, community help and mentorship," said Ellis. "We have managed to make Stanton what it is through a blend of district and private funding."
The discussion, led by Stanton principal Stacey Burnley, continued with Anna Olvera, a sixth- grade teacher at the K-8 school.
"This is the staff to beat all staffs," said Olvera. "We care and we love these kids, but we should not have to rely on private funds."
Lauren DellaCava, who helps with fundraising for the school, agreed, saying that the resources that they provide the students should be luxuries as opposed to essentials.
During a news conference later that morning, Mayor Nutter joined Duncan and Hite at Stanton.
"Do we have the political will to educate our children?" Nutter asked. "As Secretary Duncan pointed out, Pennsylvania is 50th on the list of school funding inequality. This is an educational apartheid."
Nutter went on to say that students across the state are suffering as a result of what "adults are not doing."
"[With] this level of disparity, we should be ashamed of ourselves," he said, "and there is no reason in the world but for lack of political will to address the issue."
Duncan agreed, saying he hopes to see more bipartisan efforts to restore public education in Pennsylvania.
"There is a sense of justice that we need to get to," he said. "We need to level the playing field for all students."