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To save the Gionnas, first save our schools

How many great kids like Gionna are trapped in Philadelphia public schools?

BARTRAM High School is only about 3 miles from West Catholic Preparatory School. For Gionna Hawkins, those 3 miles could represent the journey of a lifetime.

Hawkins is the young woman profiled in the Inquirer due to the violence that flared on a regular basis at Bartram. Because of that profile, she received a scholarship from West Catholic and escaped the violence and chaos at Bartram.

How many great kids like Gionna are trapped in Philadelphia public schools? How many promising students have their educations held hostage because of dangerous and uncontrollable students whose only purpose seems to be that of "classroom terrorists"?

I interviewed Gionna's mom on my radio show, and she told me that Gionna in her first year at Bartram had been beaten by a bunch of other girls, had three cellphones stolen and had no science teacher for a month.

When the scholarship offer came, she immediately enrolled her daughter rather than wait until a new school year. She did not want her daughter to have to face the daily dysfunction caused by out-of-control kids.

I salute her.

She talked about her efforts to get Gionna into a school other than Bartram. We discussed the tension of being in the lottery system for better schools and the misery when the ping-pong balls didn't fall Gionna's way. It sickens me that we've come to accept a lottery as a way to determine a child's fate.

Some might argue that despite the violence at Bartram, Gionna was thriving. As Kristen Graham reported in the Inquirer: "She's a cheerleader and freshman class president. She helps lead an after-school program focusing on music, art and fashion. Her schedule is packed with honors courses, and her friends know she is a stickler for proper spelling and good grammar."

She's the type of student teachers love to teach. Some might argue that when the Gionnas of the world leave the Philadelphia public schools, then these tough schools will lose all hope.

My response is that I want to see people like Gionna and her mom have the resources to choose the best school for her, just as wealthier parents can choose private schools or connected parents can choose public schools like Masterman. Their story is the template for why vouchers should be available to parents to get their child to an oasis like West Catholic Preparatory School.

As Dawn Hawkins told me, this is not to blame the teachers and staff at Bartram, many of whom are facing daunting odds to just keep things going day to day. If you have a significant number of uncaring or incapable parents in a school, you will get kids that will be very difficult to control, let alone teach.

And let's face it, the biggest threat to academic achievement is kids who are the classroom cancers, raised (if you can call it that) by irresponsible or incompetent parents.

I've taught in schools like Bartram on at least two occasions, and the stress level on a teacher is draining. Teachers become engaged in daily hand-to-hand combat and have little time or energy for students like Gionna.

Imagine teaching at a place where the conflict-resolution person is knocked out and receives a fractured skull. Bad students create a dangerous and toxic environment that poisons learning. And where are these kids learning this bad behavior? It starts at the home, with many parents failing to provide even the most basic of upbringings for their kids.

I realize that many reading this will resort to the old myth that schools like Bartram would work if they just had enough funding. Tell me how much funding does it take to get parents to care about their kids and kids to show up to school ready and willing to learn? When kids fail to receive even a basic sense of values, respect and parental guidance, you know what the answer will likely be.

In the short term as the vouchers debate continues, what would help students like Gionna is a vast expansion of charter schools. I want Philadelphia to be more like New Orleans, where the New York Post recently reported 84 percent of public school students attend charters.

The Gionnas of the world in Philadelphia should have more opportunities to attend the charter school that they choose. As her mom told me, Gionna lost out in the lotteries for the schools that she wanted to attend and the choices were very small.

Second, it's time to call out punk parents. If your children's behavior is a threat to students and staff, both student and parents should face some type of liability and sanctions. If a kid is out-of-control and a cancer to learning, how about removing the cancer?

My hope is that issues like this will be a top debate item in the next mayor's race. I think state Sen. Anthony Williams will run and is uniquely qualified to bring these issues to a head. I'm also confident that former City Councilman Bill Green will be trying to push for more options for parents in his role as head of the School Reform Commission.

In the short term, I hope we members of the media can highlight people like Gionna and her mom so that they can be rescued by good people, saving one child at a time.