On the eighth floor at 1701 Walnut, a gathering of civic innovators beckoned, but in the lobby, the conversation was positively deja vu.
"What's new?" said one man in a suit to another as they waited for an elevator at 6:30 Tuesday evening. "Not a thing," said the newcomer almost defiantly. "You know nothing is ever new where I work. Same old, same old."
The words seemed attached to the elevator like barnacles or like the city's Latin motto, Philadelphia Maneto, which loosely translates to "Same olde, same olde."
In a millennials cafe and media-tech work space called Benjamin's Desk on the eighth floor, about 40 would-be civic innovators had gathered for a panel discussion about businesses' adopting Philadelphia public high schools as a way to train students to join the workforce.
"Imagine, for example, a Comcast Benjamin Franklin High training students to become linemen, or technicians, or customer-service reps," read the pre-event article on the website of Philadelphia Citizen, the event sponsor (www.thephillycitizen.com). "An Urban Outfitters South Philly High, teaching retail skills, from design to sales to bookkeeping. A SmithKline Edison graduating students ready to work technical jobs at the pharmaceutical giant."
Pie in the sky? Or does it seem more possible from eight floors up?
The Philadelphia Citizen is a nonprofit, foundation-funded website launched this year because "these times call for journalism that focuses on solutions that, together, we can help bring to fruition." The editor, Larry Platt, has run both Philadelphia Magazine and the Philadelphia Daily News. Dilworth Paxson CEO and civic activist Ajay Raju is the founder and chief financial backer through his family foundation.
What attracted me to the discussion was the timing. Who schedules a public schools wonkfest during happy hour on St. Patrick's Day? Certainly that had something to do with the negligible turnout of bona fide millennials, those 20- to 35-year-old educated, tech-savvy city-dwellers who now represent an astounding 40 percent of the Center City population. And who, if they stick around, could be the parents of the next generation of Philadelphia schoolchildren.
"I'm disappointed that this place wasn't packed to the rafters [with millennials]," Raju said afterward. He looked around the room like a Baptist minister searching for new congregants and recognizing only members of the choir. "We're like an echo chamber reaching the same people."
The discussion took place on the same day The Inquirer reported the results of a Pew Charitable Trusts study that found education is the most important issue to Philadelphians in this mayoral election year. Schools outpolled crime and jobs/economy as the paramount concern of Philadelphians by 32 percent to 23 and 22 percent, respectively.
The poll also showed that 48 percent of respondents want to see the School Reform Commission abolished and replaced with an elected (68 percent) school board. So it was something of a surprise when Bill Green Jr., the unceremoniously ousted chairman of the SRC, arrived in the audience.
"Shouldn't you be on the panel?" I asked. Green replied he was there for the same reason everyone else was: "I thought I could learn something about education."
His presence may have inhibited a more robust "what if we tried this" discussion by the panelists: real estate mogul and City Council candidate Allan Domb, restaurateur Jeff Benjamin, and educator Laura Shubilla. The topic, corporate adoption of schools, was almost wistfully dismissed by all as "ain't gonna happen." Too much same old, same old bureaucratic resistance; not enough ka-ching, ka-ching corporate incentive.
Besides, the thought of a Comcast Franklin High raised concerns of bundling costly premium cable packages with Central, Masterman, and Girls' High.
Missing from the audience and the discussion - as in not even mentioned - were current parents of today's students. The focus was on "maybe babies" millennials, the ones Raju described as having the "power of flight" to leave the city.
The elephant in the room could be felt but wasn't seen or heard. It's this: About 80 percent of the city's public school children qualify for free meals because the family income falls below the poverty line. Eight out of 10! That is a preposterous imbalance, a societal cataclysm.
Imagine if eight out of 10 Eagles had to play football in bare feet. Would we notice? Would we care?
After the discussion, Domb offered this grim statistical triage:
20 percent of Philadelphia public school students come from two-parent households.
50 percent come from single-parent households, or those run by a single relative.
30 percent have no one, through abandonment or death or prison or social-services intervention. They belong to the city and the state, to you and to me. And all we ever leave them is alone.