Parents, community members voice concerns

Members of the newly formed Board of Education heard concerns about parents having to send their kids to Austin Meehan Middle School instead of Mayfair.

Starting the conversation: The incoming Philadelphia Board of Education listens to concerns from parents during a meeting at Lawncrest Library last Wednesday. JOHN COLE / TIMES PHOTO

By Logan Krum and John Cole

Parents and concerned citizens of Philadelphia packed inside Lawncrest Library last Wednesday night for the incoming Philadelphia Board of Education’s most-attended listening tour meeting.

Attendees were given the chance to have four members of the newly formed Board of Education hear their concerns. The most prominent concern addressed was the School District of Philadelphia’s proposal to move kindergarten and first-grade students from Mayfair Elementary School to Austin Meehan Middle School in the fall of 2018.

Voiced concerns included the physical state of Meehan, its location in terms of safety and distance, and the quality of education at the school. Many parents agreed they had chosen their homes specifically to send their kids to Mayfair.

“We don’t let [my grandchildren] go to school by themselves,” said Maria Barowski, who has two grandchildren. “We take them to school and pick them up. Having a first-grader in Austin Meehan is not worth it.”

On behalf of his discussion group, Board of Education member Christopher McGinley stated a concern that the middle school was built for older kids, not first-graders.

“Parents wanted to make sure we understood that they will continue to take action,” said McGinley, who had been a member of the SRC. In an interview with the Times after the meeting, he said he believes the Board of Education is a better governing model.

“They are not just going to come to this one event. They’re going to continue to be activists about this issue,” he said.

Attendees were broken into four groups to engage in conversation about what brought them there that night.

Members sat in large circles and stated their names, how they were connected to the school district and one concern or hope they have for the new school board.

“This completely blindsided us,” said Jackie Nelson, parent of a child currently in kindergarten at Mayfair Elementary. Nelson also has a 14-year-old who attended Mayfair Elementary who is currently enrolled at Northeast High School.

The Mayfair-Meehan move was brought up in all four groups.

“Why do they need to send the kids in the middle school?” asked Queenie Mei, parent of a child who will be attending kindergarten in the fall. “That is not fit for the little kids.”

The question of diversity was also at hand when discussing this move to Meehan, as a significant percentage of attendees were Asian immigrants, who had an interpreter.

Other issues discussed included adequate funding for the arts at every school, properly dealing with mental illness and trauma at every level, and diversity in the school district as a whole.

At the end of the meeting, the four board members present stated the major concerns they had heard. All four had heard about the Mayfair-Meehan issue.

One of the facilitators of the event suggested that they could either put “modular classrooms” at Mayfair Elementary, “or rent schoolrooms in the local Catholic schools, which are underused right now,” and would be closer to the Mayfair school than Meehan.

Chris Satullo, co-director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, also had a suggestion to deal with the diversity issues at hand.

“Perhaps more bilingual employees at the school district and understanding that the two best ways to communicate are by written letter, which a family that doesn’t speak English can get translated and read to them, and by phone and use of the Mandarin hotline,” Satullo said.

Last November, the School Reform Commission voted to dissolve itself, leading the way for Mayor Jim Kenney to appoint a local school board a couple of months ago.

The SRC will continue until June 30. The Board of Education does not take control until July 1.

Each of the nine members of the new school board attended at least two of the five stops during the listening tour, according to Philadelphia Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney, who was present at the Lawncrest Library.

Leticia Egea-Hinton, one of the board members, thanked those for attending and discussed the personal tone it struck with her.

“They reminded me, as a person who is first generation born in this country, that just because you don’t speak English, does not mean you don’t have a voice,” she said. “The new Board of Education should never forget the diversity of the city’s children and families.”

Board member Mallory Fix Lopez shared similar sentiments, and felt the parents had been wronged.

“I heard a cry for collaboration,” Fix Lopez said. “They are deep-rooted advocates, who are justifiably angry, disappointed and frustrated that their voices have continued to go unheard, ignored, and sometimes even laughed at.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, Hackney stated that this was the highest-attended meeting of the five on the listening tour. Over 100 people were in attendance.

A report will be typed up and made public through the Mayor’s Office of Education recapping each stop along the listening tour. An official said they will aim to translate the executive summary into Mandarin. ••