As Philadelphia continues to promote itself on the national stage, education remains an issue that could decide whether the growth and the good vibes continue. And 2015 came with some good news and bad news for city schools. The school district certainly wasn’t helped by the ongoing budget crisis, but Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has made bold promises about changing our education system.
Meanwhile, our institutions of higher ed are generally thriving. St. Joseph’s University got a surprise dose of Pope, two universities merged and Penn students are helping the school come to grips with mental health awareness. Here’s a look at the year in Philly education.
Kenney’s priorities: Universal Pre-K and community schools
Leaders elected this year have new ideas they expect to push through in the coming months and years. Two of Kenney’s most prominent strategies for improving schools are Universal Pre-K and community schools.
In May, Philadelphia voters approved the creation of a city Commission on Universal Pre-K. The commission was launched in June and has been working to figure out how to fund Universal Pre-K in the city. Kenney promised during his campaign that he would implement a Universal Pre-K program for all 4-year-olds by the end of his first term. He’s already created a new staff position, prekindergarten director, and announced that educator Anne Gemmell would take the job.
Community schools are Kenney’s other planned initiative. In late November, he announced his administration would form 25 community schools in his first term. Community schools would become hubs for neighborhoods, featuring childcare and after-school programs, as well as services like dental, vision and health care.
The lockdown at Community College of Philadelphia
In early October, campus security was increased at several area colleges because of a threat about violence at a Philadelphia-area college on the website 4chan. So on Oct. 6, when a threat of a gunman and ensuing lockdown was announced at Community College of Philadelphia, nearby businesses shut down and media flocked to the area.
The threat ended up stemming from an argument between two students who had been in an ongoing dispute. Police never found a gun. The only person who faced any consequences was the student who made the threat: He faced a disciplinary hearing and got suspended.
And what caused a freakout for many local businesses and local media was a matter of routine for police. By that point in the year, the police had received 39,612 weapons calls. About 38,000 of them had been unfounded.
The continued disagreements between lawmakers has led to wide-ranging consequences to already-struggling schools across the state and here in Philadelphia. The school district here gets just over 50 percent of its funding from the state, while others get 60-70 percent, but still has had to borrow millions of dollars. The loans were needed to make payroll. Across the state, other districts have had to borrow money for similar reasons and dip into rainy day funds. Should the impasse continue into the new year, the situation will get more precarious. Western Pennsylvania school districts have talked about not reopening after Winter Break. Philly schools superintendent William Hite announced the district would have to close in late January if no budget has passed.
The school district’s substitute teaching firm’s fail
In June, the district announced it would outsource its substitute teaching operation to a New Jersey based firm called Source4Teachers. This didn’t please the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Substitute teacher jobs had previously been union jobs. That wouldn’t be the case anymore. By September, the news got even more grim: Source4Teachers couldn’t even do its job. The company had filled only 11 percent of substitute vacancies when the school year started. That number had only gone up to about 25 percent by late November. It was expected to be around 75 to 90 percent. “It really feels as though this is Alice in Wonderland,” said a Mt. Airy teacher, who asked his name not be used for this article because of family connections with the school district. “It’s totally insane, stupid and evil wrapped into one little package.”
In late November, the school district announced it was modifying its relationship with Source4Teachers. The company would now only be tasked with finding and hiring daily subs. The school district would go back to finding long-term subs.
Merger between Phila U and Thomas Jefferson
It was like hearing for the first time that Ke$ha and Pitbull had decided to collaborate. You just wondered, why? Earlier this month, Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University announced they were merging. The move will give Thomas Jefferson several more programs of study and Philadelphia U. students a clearer path to medical school. In three years, Philadelphia U. will have to alter its name.
The Temple football stadium moves closer to reality
The proposed Temple football stadium has come so far that there’s now a location — just north of the Liacouras Center — and an estimated cost of $100 million. As of this month, it appeared Temple was leaning toward building the new stadium. But a few obstacles remain. Many residents remain against it. At a Board of Trustees meeting in early December, dozens protested against it. One longtime resident said, “We’ve had enough of students tearing up the neighborhood.” Kenney has expressed doubts about the stadium, too. He wants a discussion with university leaders and for the school to consider renting out the Linc at a lower rate with the Eagles.
The Pope comes to St. Joe’s
The world’s most famous Jesuit visited Philly’s only Jesuit university. In an impromptu visit during the Sunday of his Philadelphia visit, Pope Francis strolled through the campus.
Mental health continues to be an issue at Penn
The body of Penn student Timothy Hamlett, who had been missing for months, was found in June, and his death was ruled a suicide, the seventh in two academic years at Penn. It came a few months after the university released the findings of a mental health taskforce that were derided by experts and students. In September, about 40 students protested the university’s lack of emphasis on mental health.
Students say this year marked greater awareness for mental health issues on campus. Several new groups focusing on mental health have popped up and existing groups have been revived. One student said of the administration, “What they’re doing might be enough or might not be enough, but the students are trying to take this in their own hands.”