Strict Standards: Declaration of C_DataMapper_Driver_Base::define() should be compatible with C_Component::define($context = false) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/datamapper/class.datamapper_driver_base.php on line 609

Strict Standards: Declaration of C_DataMapper_Driver_Base::initialize() should be compatible with C_Component::initialize() in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/datamapper/class.datamapper_driver_base.php on line 609

Strict Standards: Declaration of C_Displayed_Gallery_Mapper::define() should be compatible with C_CustomPost_DataMapper_Driver::define($object_name, $context = false) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/nextgen_gallery_display/class.displayed_gallery_mapper.php on line 4

Strict Standards: Declaration of C_Displayed_Gallery_Mapper::initialize() should be compatible with C_CustomPost_DataMapper_Driver::initialize($object_name) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/nextgen_gallery_display/class.displayed_gallery_mapper.php on line 4

Shortly after former Philadelphia public school teacher Megan Rosenbach bought her house in Point Breeze in June 2011 she began mobilizing around her neighborhood elementary school, teaming up with her local church to raise extra money for the school. Less than a year later, she founded the group Neighbors Investing in Childs Elementary, or N.I.C.E., which seeks to support the extracurricular needs of G.W. Childs Elementary.

The catch? Rosenbach doesn’t have kids yet. In fact, of the four group members who are most regularly involved with N.I.C.E., only one has a child, and that child is only three-months old.

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Jorge Santana and his wife were doing something similar. When they found out last September that they were having a baby, their very first thought was about education – and the public school choices they would have. “We’re now one of those people who are going to have that debate about whether we’re going to go to the suburbs or not,” said Santana, whose son is now just a few weeks old.

So they helped start the 19125 Parents Coalition, an umbrella organization for the various friends groups that support neighborhood schools within the 19125 zip code. The coalition wants to serve as the entry point for parents who are looking to learn more about neighborhood schools and kid’s programs.

“This coalition was started to see, ‘how do we engage those folks in a conversation about the schools?’ Because the feeling that my wife and I had was that a lot of our friends are having kids, and they were all saying ‘we really support public schools, we want to be able to send our kids to a public school’, but they didn’t understand the mess that is going on with the school district and they didn’t like it,” Santana said.

It’s a phenomenon that appears to be growing into a trend, with similar groups of non-parent school activists popping up all over neighborhoods where young professional families are living – some of them producing huge investments for their local school. It’s a distinct departure from what young professionals have jokingly called the “five-year plan,” – which is the choice many young families make to enjoy city life until their children are old enough to start school, and then move to the suburbs.

“More and more people in neighborhoods where maybe people would have looked for a magnet school, or thrown their hands in the charter school lottery, which certainly a lot of people are still doing, want our neighborhood school to be a great one, and so we’re investing time and resources into them,” said Kristen Forbiger engagement chair of PhillyCORE Leaders, a coalition of education leaders founded to foster a more connected education community.

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, has been meeting with these groups in an impromptu manner, and said they typically want to know how they can fundraise locally and ensure the money goes straight to their local school. They’ve also inquired about the restrictions on what their fundraising can pay for.

“It’s the most grassroots organizing that you can imagine,” said Shorr. “It usually starts out with a couple of friends who are interested in having their kids go to the local public school, but think the school probably needs a little more support.” They start recruiting neighbors, meet in houses or coffee shops, volunteer at the school and begin fundraising. And little by little the grassroots effort evolves.

“I think one way or another it has to do with all of us seeing education as the main driver in our own and our peers ability to stay in the city long term,” said Susanna Greenberg, who is also not a parent and is now finishing up her second year of a three-year-term on the board of Independence Charter School. Greenberg said that in recent years, the charter school’s board has been getting more and more members who are not parents.

“I think that makes a neat mix of people. The parents have a strong feel of the whole school because they have kids coming home everyday talking about it. Those of us who don’t have a little more professional distance,” she said. “I think combined we can make great choices for the school.”

Most of these new activists say that building relationships and partnerships with parents and administrators already in the school are crucial to their success. Though no group member mentioned it explicitly, they are mostly newcomers to their neighborhood, and inevitably issues of educational equity and racial segregation can cause tension. More than 75 percent of families within the Philadelphia school system qualify for subsidized lunches, and more than 85 percent of students in the system are students of color. In some cases you can observe the patterns of segregated classes within integrated schools.

“It’s not about what do we want, rather it’s about what do the teachers and administrators at the school think they want, and how can we make that happen,” said George Matysik, of Friends of Mifflin School – a group made up of parents, non-parents, teachers, administrators and members of the community.

Matysik, who is not a parent, is also a board member at his Catholic alma mater, Mercy Vocational High School. He sees his involvement as an investment in his neighborhood.

“I do recognize that a public school is the backbone of any strong community. So for me it’s about a strong community, it’s about a strong education system and it’s about having strong educational options in every community in Philadelphia.”

Rosenbach, who has every intention of staying in Point Breeze, has a similar sentiment. She hopes N.I.C.E. will help show potential parents that the neighborhood school is an option for them.

There is a marketing component to all this fundraising and advocacy, both Matysik and Rosenbach say.

“When new, potential parents are looking at homes in Philadelphia, we want to highlight that we have this great public school option in a neighborhood that they’re potentially looking to buy in,” Matysik said. “We want them to know from the get-go that if you plan to raise a family in Philadelphia that East Falls is a great community to do so, and in large part because of our strong public school.” Friends of Mifflin organizes weekly tours for potential parents to visit the school, and has distributed fliers to all of the realtors doing businesses in East Falls.

In March, PhillyCORE Leaders’s Engagement Committee convened leaders from many of these groups to discuss common opportunities and challenges. The committee surveyed membership demographics, geographic areas, primary goals, primary activities, successes and challenges.

The survey showed the groups are mostly comprised of middle class families who live in diverse communities and, “have some school options, but would prefer to attend the neighborhood public school.” The groups range in size from four to 50, and have up to 350 parents and community members on their mailing lists. Most groups feature a chairperson and small executive committee, who meet monthly. And nearly all of the groups have 501c3 status or a nonprofit fiscal sponsor.

The survey also found that while the groups are comprised mostly of parents of pre-school age children or younger, there is definitely an increase in the number of non parents who join.  Typical challenges for these groups include language and cultural barriers that made collaborating with current parents difficult, obstacles to fundraising, finding a point person in the district, and establishing a relationship with that person.

No matter the makeup of the group, Matysik emphasized a point of view that presumably all of them share: “We’ve all been watching, schools have been closed, programs have been cut — and we’re wondering what we as a community can do to help support our local community school.”