By Randi Weingarten
and Jerry T. Jordan
When we walked into Kimrenee Patterson's classroom at South Philadelphia High School, the students were excited, engaged, and immersed in study to prepare for a career in early childhood education.
A small group of students were learning about infant reflexes by simultaneously reading in their text and applying their knowledge using replica baby dolls. Another young man was using computer programming to create a model "auto-shop" that he will reproduce in an early childhood classroom.
Down the hall, in the graphic design studio, we saw the award-winning products students designed. In the culinary academy, students dressed in crisp white chef coats made melt in-your- mouth sugar cookies, linzer tortes, and lemon bars.
It's easy to see why Patterson and the other educators are so proud of their students and their career and technical education programs. And the students, who are just as proud of their teachers, have the same enthusiasm, passion, and commitment we see in schools across the city - and indeed the country.
Under the leadership of Principal Otis Hackney, Southern has become a school where teachers want to teach, parents want to send their kids, and kids are engaged. But it wasn't always that way. Just a few years ago, the Southern community was wracked by racial violence.
It would have been easy to walk away. But instead, the community came together - parents, students, teachers - to build wonderful high school programs and in doing so, transform their neighborhood.
Philadelphia is at a unique moment. There is so much hope - a real sense of camaraderie and collaboration among the city's top officials. Political leaders are clamoring for community schools, a model we've been pushing for years, a model that we believe would provide the wraparound supports students need to succeed.
At the same time, there is a very real threat to this hope. A long-term plan for Philadelphia's schools is key, but it is not enough.
Our teachers, students, and families are at a breaking point. The underfunding has been so relentless and pernicious. There is simply nothing left to give. We heard from educators in South Philadelphia, as we do too often, that the state of our schools is not sustainable. The health, wellbeing, and even the lives of our children and educators is at stake.
Lawmakers across the commonwealth and around the nation must understand both the possibilities and the challenges: the contrast between the beautiful community being built at South Philadelphia High and so many other schools with the very stark realities that too many of our children face each day; classes of more than 45 students; elementary students still waiting for a full-time teacher; and the upheaval created by a manufactured substitute and vacancy crisis.
We cannot imagine that anyone thinks these conditions are acceptable. And yet, we have lawmakers who refuse to pass a budget that would make our schools whole again, and condition funding to Philadelphia on draconian sanctions and so-called reforms that are not good for children. We have a district that continues to dole out raises and bonuses to central office administrators while our members approach four years without so much as a cost of living raise.
Mayor-elect Jim Kenney, along with Council President Darrell Clarke, must have every resource needed to implement the community schools model in Philadelphia. This is the right strategy. We have a genuine opportunity right now, to join together to demand that our schools are a humane and just reflection of our values; schools where every child has the opportunity to bake a linzer torte, to design an auto-shop for a pre-K classroom, or create award-winning posters.
We are all in for Philly's children.