Amy Chen, Gomian Konneh, Crystal Arim and Maureen Smith, members of Superintendent William Hite Jr's Student Advisory Board
The gravity of her situation struck Crystal Arim, 17, a couple weeks ago, when she was at a college-prep summer program at Columbia University, chatting with directors of admissions from Harvard and Yale. "It was a program with girls from all over the world, from the UK, from South Africa and from the United States. And it was just embarrassing to openly say to the director of admissions, ‘Hey, I don’t have a [school guidance] counselor,'" she says. "I didn’t feel prepared. I felt like I was set up to fail. What am I supposed to do? I’m competing against girls who have fencing in their school, who play the violin."
For ambitious students like Arim, going into their junior and senior years with hopes of attending elite colleges on competitive scholarships, news of the potential delayed start of classes in the Philadelphia School District pending $50 million in additional funding felt like the latest in a string of betrayals by state and local politicians.
Arim, a senior at Kensington Urban Education Academy High School, is on Superintendent William Hite Jr.'s Student Advisory Board, which was created this spring following the student walkouts. Students on the board are worried about the basics, like school safety and having a counselor around when crisis strikes. But they're also concerned about how they can attain their dreams of college with insufficient counselors to fill out college evaluations; a lack of extracurriculars, electives and mentally-gifted classes to put on their applications; and bloated class sizes and fewer course offerings to ensure they're prepared.
Most of all, they want politicians to start paying attention and stop marginalizing Philly students. The other members of the Student Advisory Board — Amy Chen, 16, a junior at Science Leadership Academy, Gomian Konneh, 17, a senior at Masterman High School, and Maureen Smith, 16, a junior at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) — have heard comments about Philly schools being a "cesspool" loud and clear. "How do you take students who are identified as part of a cesspool and inspire them to continue with their education, when you’re giving them that stereotype?" says Smith. "It's awful."
Konneh adds: "The scary part is that I believe that they don’t think that we, the students of the Philadelphia School District are going to succeed. So they take money away from us and they put it into other things. The hardest part about this whole thing is getting it through to these politicians. We have to make them believe that we’re people We have to give them our stories. We have to let them see that we’re human. I think they see us as being inferior to other students — and changing a person’s beliefs is one of the hardest things you can do."
Here, then, are some of those stories:
This March, when Konneh was 16 and an 11th-grade student at Masterman, there was a tragedy at her school. "We didn’t have enough counselors to properly deal with that situation. Students were crying and it was really chaotic. And we needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, because we did not have enough counselors, they asked me as a peer counselor — one of 20 peer counselors — to go and talk to middle school students who had just experienced [that situation]. And we’re not trained to talk about that at all." She says she felt uncomfortable and ill-equipped for the task, but didn't feel she could say no.
Smith says that the school funding crisis has made that type of situation more and more common: "We keep seeing the same thing happening: children having to take on adult roles."
At Smith's school, meanwhile, "Teachers have resorted to giving you extra credit for bringing in reams of paper." She says in every classroom, there's "at least one item that should be supplied that isn't." For example, the ceramics department at CAPA no longer had clay this past year, she says. (This problem isn't limited to CAPA: At Masterman, Konneh says, there was a week when "we weren’t allowed to print out anything because we didn’t have paper.") Smith says students and teachers have had to fund-raise for basic supplies. And she's worried about what she's walking into in the fall: larger class sizes, a new schedule, a new principal, fewer teachers. She knows this is a critical time for her and her peers. "The world isn’t slowing down for us. And it’s really not the time for us to be stopped in our tracks, when everyone else is getting into innovative ways of education."
Arim, meanwhile, says that she's now in foster care, and school is the only constant in her life. It's what she looks forward to. "I don't want that to be taken away from me and from my peers." Now, she's been told that her school will be getting out early — at 1:30 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. She wants more time in school, not less. She feels she has catching up to do; the admissions officers told her she should have four years of a foreign language, and she has only two. And her school doesn't offer a single Advanced Placement class, which she worries will make it hard for her to stand out.
Then there's the issue of the guidance counselors: Even if her school does get one counselor in the fall, she says, "Imagine a school with 1,500 students and one counselor. How is your letter of recommendation going to stand out from the other students when that counselor didn’t have time to get to know you?" she says. "I have to turn in my application by January. School starts in September — and now schools might not even open until way after that."
As for Chen, who comes from an immigrant family and plans to be the first to go to college, she says her counselor "is like a second mother. "My mom speaks broken English, and my dad speaks broken English. So I can go to [my counselor] for help and guidance." Without a counselor, college applications and scholarship applications will become that much harder to navigate.
These students, who are also affiliated variously with the Silenced Students Movement, Youth United for Change and Philadelphia Student Union, see themselves as following in the legacy of civil rights advocates who desegregated schools and fought against disenfranchisement of women. They're crafting an education-funding platform they plan to share with Hite and politicians who, they hope, will incorporate it into their campaigns. They're mobilizing against Gov. Tom Corbett, who they see as leading the charge to de-fund Philadelphia schools. And they're willing to stage more protests if need be,
Gonneh says she's not happy with the situation, but she's proud of how students are responding. "Before, I felt that our generation was kind of complacent in our situations. I’m not thankful for this at all, but I feel as though this has made us realize the importance of getting a great education," she says.
Still, she hopes politicians will start paying attention — and soon. "We walked out of school. A lot of people have participated in hunger strikes. How much more radical can we get before people will listen and see that we need an education?"
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