When the kids reach school age, it's time to leave the city.
So goes a familiar refrain in Philadelphia, repeated every time new census data show more people moved out than moved in.
Yet, how well do you know Philadelphia public schools? The truth is they are likely better than you think — especially when it comes to the early grades. Kindergarten should not be parents' deadline to move away.
Over the past several years, the School District of Philadelphia and other public schools have made significant investments in K-3 education, training thousands of teachers in evidence-based literacy instruction and making physical improvements to classrooms across the city.
Over the last three years, the district retrained all 2,000 of its K-3 teachers. With $42 million in funding — from the district, the William Penn Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and others — teachers were supported with intensive summer training and regular coaching from literacy experts in each of their schools. The district has been tracking the results of these efforts, and sees every day how teacher instruction is getting stronger.
To help teachers create exciting and stimulating learning environments, classroom spaces are being revitalized. Just last summer more than 60 classrooms across eight schools received significant upgrades and renovations. From new furniture and technology, to hands-on learning equipment, and capital improvements such as flooring, lighting, and paint, these vibrant new spaces are enhancing the learning experiences for children.
Other organizations are also helping to make sure that students are engaged in exciting and effective lessons every day. For example, Temple University is helping 250 teachers pursue National Board certification – the most respected and recognized professional certification in K-12 education. Children's Literacy Initiative is working with groups such as Universal Charter Schools and Mastery Charter Schools to support teachers' use of best practices, and the citywide network of organizations behind the Read by 4th campaign is working to boost early literacy.
This summer, the city's collective efforts will be highlighted at the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading's annual conference, held this year in Philadelphia. Hundreds of funders and practitioners locally and from around the country will share strategies to increase the number of children who read proficiently by the end of third grade.
There is some early indication that these investments are starting to make a difference. For example, in the fall, the district reported an increase of five percentage points in the number of third graders who are reading on grade level. Third grade is a critical gateway to future academic success: By the fourth grade, school instruction shifts from teaching how to read toward reading in order to learn new subjects. The notable five-point increase in 2017 illustrates the benefits of coordinated efforts to strengthen early literacy among the city's youngest students — both in and out of the classroom.
But even with these significant improvements, challenges remain. We, along with others, continue to tackle those challenges on a daily basis. If Philadelphia is to keep families with young children in the city, ongoing investment in and support for Philadelphia's schools are paramount.
Every year, families leave in pursuit of schools they think are better. Before assuming that schools somewhere else have more to offer, visit your neighborhood school and see what's going on. Talk to the teachers and principals who are educating today's young students. Investigate the many good district and charter-school options in Philadelphia. We know there are a lot of reasons why people leave Philadelphia. They may want a bigger house, a driveway, or their own yard. But don't leave for the schools until you've seen some of the great teaching happening right here.
Elliot Weinbaum is program director for William Penn Foundation's Great Learning grant-making program. A product of Philadelphia public schools, Weinbaum leads a team that supports efforts to improve teaching and learning from early childhood through high school.