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Winter 2010

The Union Rep

newsletter of the philadelphia student union


hovels dug into the dirt, sand thrown to signify something incredible. As the dust settled I felt it deep down. It had happened, Philadelphia Student Union’s (PSU) West Philadelphia High School chapter had come to a major milestone in our organizing. An almost six year process lead to the ground breaking

of West Philadelphia High School on its new site at 49th and Chestnut Streets. It had been a long time coming. In 2003, then CEO Paul Vallas announced that West Philadelphia High School would be getting a new building. Immediately, students at West started a process of figuring out how to change not

Breaking Ground on a Better Education Students’ Work Pays Off at West Philadelphia High School By Khalif Dobson

Khalif Dobson

celebrates the groundbreaking with

Superintendent Ackerman &


Sherise Lewis.

Timeline of student organizing around a new building 2003..............CEO Paul Vallas announces a new building for West Philadelphia High School. 2003-2005....PSU students lead the community process to design the new building & create a research-based educational vision. 2005-2009....PSU students continue to influence construction & design of the new building. 2006..............West is removed from the District’s captial budget. Students fight successfully to get $81 Million put back in the budget for West. 2006-2007....PSU surveys students to name & design four small learning academies that are then implemented in the school: Automotive, Business, Urban Lead ership, & Creative and Performing Arts [now 9th Grade Academy]. 2009..............Groundbreaking. Construction begins on new West Philadelphia High School.

just the building, but to improve the quality of education and the school culture. We traveled to schools in the Bronx, NY, and Okaland, CA, that had successfully educated students coming from the same backgrounds and communities of the West population. When I joined PSU in 9th grade I remember having to go to the School Reform Commission to demand that they put West back in the capital budget after our school had been taken out. It was a struggle to get to this point where I can stand on a construction site and say “I was a part of the process that made this happen.” The process up to this point has included over 200 people—community members, faith based organizations, parents, local representatives, and politicians—and was spear-headed by students. So the opening of the new school is a testament of the power of student voice, and the ability of a community to take an active role in transforming a whole school. The fight for a school that creates critical thinkers and not test takers still continues however being that we have the building stage complete we are now working on the education. The Community Partners—the community body that supports the school—is working closely with school leadership and the community to bring in a number of things. Parent and community volunteers are fighting the truancy issue by making phone calls to absent students at the school, we are helping to organize a community walk to engage the faculty in the community in which they work, and thinking of ways to really involve a higher percentage of parents in the school. We will need the help of everyone that has supported us and ask that you continue your hard work. Although it has been almost one hundred years in the making, the new building will be more than just a building. It will be the stage for our actors to perform, a podium for our orators to speak, and a track for our race to academic excellence. •


Building Power by re aching more students - a collection of memb ers’ reflections -


he school year has been great so far. Since August we have welcomed new members, had amazing experiences in our campaigns and learned a lot about our work and each other. In addition to members from our chapter schools, we now have members from University City High School, George Washington Carver High School for Engineering and Science, Parkway West and a number of other schools. Students have met with Mayor Nutter, gone to New York as Poverty Scholars at the Poverty Initiative and spoken to parents, community members and teachers at our 3rd Annual Open House. It’s been a productive school year so far. To recognize and celebrate a great first half of the year, members share their reflections of what drew them to PSU and how it had impacted them.


oining PSU has changed my attitude about school and made me be more involved in being a positive role model for other students. -Sharnell Barnett, Overbrook High School Students need to have a say in things that go on in their district and PSU strives to make that happen. - DeVante Wilson, Carver High School I joined PSU because it was an opportunity for me to say what needed to be changed, as a young person at Sayre. In the past year and half — since I became a member — we have gotten a lot done in my chapter. I now look at myself as a leader and look forward to continuing my journey with PSU. - Jaileah Gibson, Sayre High School Being part of PSU has completely transformed the way I viewed the world because it brought me out of my comfort zone. I now understand the importance of understanding our society in order to change it in the most effective way possible. - Grace Harman, PSU alumnus Life is tough but with friends and role models it is easier. PSU helps you see that. - Keturah Bailey, University City High School The Philadelphia Student Union’s goal is that every child in Philadelphia gets an education that suits their personal needs and gives them a chance at a better future. I am proud to be helping in this cause. Because of organizations like PSU, future generations will be able to accomplish whatever they want. -Paula Meninato, Strath Haven High School I joined PSU to impact how schools are funded, how young people are treated, and to be heard. PSU has changed my life. -Mariah Porter, Overbrook High School I joined PSU because I realized there were problems in schools that needed to be fixed. At first, I thought there wasn’t anything that I could do, but once I became a member I realized how much power we as students have. - Iyana Ali-Green, CAPA High School I joined PSU because I wanted to make change in my school and become a leader. Little did I know that I was always a leader, but PSU brought it out of me and my leadership has stayed out ever since. - Lawrence Mahoney-Jones, PSU alumnus

PSU Members from many different schools gather outside the School District Building after a School Reform Commission meeting.


I’m trying my best to do all that I can to become a core member of this organization. When I believe in something I take part and fight for it. -Shania Morris, 8th Grade, Huey Elementary School •

A Student Speaks Out

By Othella Stanback (right)


y experience in school has been hard because I have been told that I would never amount to anything. I’m organizing with the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) to prove to those people who have counted me out that I am somebody and my opinion matters. I come from University City High School, which is an Empowerment School. Empowerment Schools are the district’s “lowest performing” schools on standardized tests. So the message that I get is that I am a troublemaker, that I am low class, or that by the time I get to 12th grade I will drop out.

powerment Schools, but we still have a long way to go. Worksheets and copying from the board or a book make learning boring. It makes people not want to come to school. School feels like a prison. How many district officials, politicians, and parents would really want their child to learn under these conditions? Although many people hold the perception that students from empowerment schools don’t care, the truth is that we do care. It could be that no one has faith in us so we give up. I would ask the school district officials if they have ever thought

I am also in P.S.U’s Blogging Team and Video Squad to get out that students need these tools, we need education, we need to know that someone other then ourselves believes in us. We want to learn. I can tell you that from experience. Who is empowered within Empowerment Schools? It is not the students. The more of us that are engaged, the more we will care about what is happening. I know that if more students could use their voice in a postive way, less would use it in a negative way. Our success will help others want to get involved. I am not giving

I know that if more students could use their voice in a postive way, less would use it in a negative way. At University City we are portrayed as delinquents, but did you ever ask us why we sometimes act out? Well now I’m telling you that one of the main reasons is that we don’t have enough of what we need - books, materials to learn, classes that are helping us stay engaged in what we are learning, and supports for the issues we are having in life. Dr. Ackerman has provided extra resources to the Em-

On The of

that we are being put down so much that we don’t want to get up and fight. I joined PSU to change the way myself and other students are being portrayed. I am not bad, I am good. And now I am getting other students from my school involved. I spoke at a School Reform Commission meeting about my school and how it is affecting me in life. The next day many of my classes had interactive lessons.

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up on my school and I don’t want to go to another school. I want to go to University City. PSU is an outlet that lets us express ourselves instead of holding it in. I’m not saying everything is bad, but I’m tired of being told that everything is fine. At PSU I learn skills that I don’t in school. I have also learned about the value of education. My education matters a lot to me now. •

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Wednesdays 6-7pm 88.1FM WPEB 3

W sayre students

organizing despite obstacles By Anthony Robinson

hen I first started high school, I didn’t have any school pride. After I joined PSU, I started standing up for my school. I want to make Sayre the best it can be and a place where every student wants to come to high school. I want to shed light on all the work that Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) members at Sayre have been doing and on all our accomplishments! This year I am a sophomore and I joined PSU last year. Before I ever joined PSU was out in front pushing to get Sayre’s library open after being closed for over a year. Last year we worked with Project Grad to get a peer mentoring program started up. We worked to make sure every student had a book in every class. We also helped to build trust and communication between students and school police. Along with our library campaign we met with school leadership to make sure that even after our library opened, there would be books, computers and resources inside for students to use and do projects. Last

the school police and the students. Students and adults made serious mistakes. We wanted to change the climate and we felt that to do that the school police and students needed to look at each other as human beings. So we put together a workshop to build communication and trust. The idea was to get students involved in the professional development of school security so that we can stop problems before they start. The great thing about the workshop was that we looked at the conditions facing both students as well as school security officers, so that we could see common ground. We want to work together. We as students talked about the issues that we face in the school and community. We don’t always feel valued or heard as young people. They told us how it is hard to be school police and how they get disrespected and are underpaid. So they understood how hard it is for us as students and we understood how it is hard for them as schools police and we both agreed to treat each other better. So far this year we have not been permitted to meet in our school. This has hurt a lot of students at our school who feel like they got punished for taking lead-

When I first started high school, I didn’t have any school pride. After I joined PSU, I started standing up for my school. I want to make Sayre the best it can be. year we spoke up on behalf of all students about the importance of up-to-date books and learning materials. The School District worked with us to ensure that books were distributed at all schools. As a result, Zakia Royster, a student leader from Sayre High School, new books were dispersed speaks on a panel at the Schott Foundation’s 2009 Opportunity to teachers and students. to Learn Conference in Washington D.C. Many students, especially ninth graders, noticed and appreciated the new textbooks. Last year, we trained school police because of some violence we had at our school. There was a “riot” at our school because of a big misunderstanding between


ership. What can we do about this problem? Maybe we can come to an agreement to let us back in our school. But this is not stopping us from doing our job as Student Union and we are still recruiting members and working to expand our workshops with school police to impact climate in schools that need it. We need your help to get us back in our schools. This year Sayre got new school police officers that have not been trained by students and the whole misunderstanding might happen again. Adults have made it harder for us to organize, but we will continue to fight for our education at Sayre high school. •

For the Love of Our School By Nicole Byrd & Sharnell Barnett


e, the students at Overbrook High School (OHS), have been working to improve our school for the last two years. This is because we love our school, and we feel like students have to take responsibility for making it better. We have been organizing students to come to school on time and attend their classes, meeting with district officials, elected officials, and community members who are all as committed as we are in transforming our school to educate each and every one of us for our future. But the road has not been easy. One of our school administrators sponsored us for a few months last year and provided a first floor classroom inside of OHS so students could meet. We held many productive meetings where we talked about our education and how we, the students, can reclaim our education. It wasn’t long before we were told we were no longer allowed to meet in the building and were forced to organize down the street at the neighborhood playground. The neighborhood playground is not a safe place for youth or anybody to be. So why are we forced to organize there? We and our many parents would prefer us being inside of the school building. On October 14, 2009 we attended an SRC meeting where we spoke with Dr. Arlene Ackerman about getting a room inside of the building to meet, where students can feel safe and secure. She said she understood and promised to talk to our principal about it. Since then we have met with several other district officials seeking their help, but we are still waiting as of this writing. On November 3, 2009, we were invited by Mr. Will Mega, who is running for State Representative of Pennsylvania’s 192nd Legislative District, on a tour around the Wynnefield, Overbrook & Lower Merion area. We were invited as experts on the issue of education reform and funding. We also stopped and showed TWU Local 234

(the SEPTA workers) our support during Overbrook is full of dedicated stutheir strike. But the most memorable part dents who deserve and want change. As was visiting Lower Merion High School. students of the Philadelphia public school As we explained to everyone on the tour, system we believe and know that we have Lower Merion gets double the amount the right to organize towards making that of money per a reality. PSU student than works with so OHS and it’s many students Overbrook is full only ten minover the city of dedicated students all utes away. and recently we Lower Merion who deserve and want learned magis also buildnet school stuchange. ing a new high dents can orschool while ganize in their Overbrook has been in the same building schools but we cannot. That is unfair. Just for almost 100 years. like at any other school, Overbrook stuMr. Mega wanted to hear our voices dents deserve the opportunity to voice our on what we thought was needed to create opinion about issues, take positive steps to the change we want to see. We discussed make change, and become leaders inside with him the importance of community of our school. involvement and student voice in bringWe believe every student should be ing positive change to our school and he heard and not muffled. So if the children committed to being a part of that process are our future, let us be heard! • with us.

Members of PSU’s Overbrook chapter Nicole Byrd, Markeeta Hudgens, Bree Blakney (from Parkway West), Sharnell Barnett & Shanah Moment attend a rally in support of striking SEPTA workers.


A Community Raises its Voice Students & Community Members Demand Accountability from National Education Officials By Koby Murphy

Koby Murphy (top left) & Youth United for Change member Ashley (far left) talk to Education Secretary Arne Duncan & Rev. Al Sharpton following their press conference. Koby spoke on behalf of students and community members who believe that national policy makers need to listen to those who are most affected by education policy, especially communities that are organizing to create solutions in their schools.


n September 29th 2009 The Listening and Learning Tour: A Conversation About Education Reform made its national debut in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, and former Speaker of The House Newt Gingrich are visiting communities across the country to hear from students, parents, teachers, and community members. Philadelphia Student Union was looking forward to the opportunity to talk to these leaders about our local experiences and the perspectives that we have on national education reform policy. Some of the things that we wanted to put forward were our successes with community-led whole school transformation, and the importance of schools that serve all students, have personalized learning environments, and multiple ways of assessing student progress and learning. In preparation for the tour we reached out to ask both Mr. Duncan and Mr. Sharpton to meet with us and a co-


alition of 20 other groups of parents, students, and teachers. We also approached our local leadership about participating in the roundtable discussion and press con-

Overall, we believe that national education policy-makers can learn from communities as well as district and elected officials. We hope that they feel the same

Reform across the nation has to take into account the utter lack of equity across the nation’s school districts and even inside districts, and heed input from the peoples that navigate through the education system. ference. However, we were barred from participating in the conversation, and only had the opportunity to dialogue through a fence as the leaders were leaving the press conference. If the people whose voices should have been heard were excluded from the process then who is it that they really listened to? Without allowing concerned communities the opportunity to engage them in the conversation about education what is it that they learned?

way. Reform across the nation has to take into account the utter lack of equity across the nation’s school districts and even inside districts, and heed input from the peoples that navigate through the education system. In the end after students confronted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Reverend Al Sharpton, we were able to get a commitment to a meeting. Philadelphia Student Union members are looking forward to discussing the future of educational reform. •

By Fred Pinguel


Gregory Jordan-Detamore uses a Flip camera to document a PSU leadership immersion trip.

edia creation is important to our work because organizing is really just about telling stories. We need to tell our story, which won’t be heard unless we put it out there, and to tell it convincingly so people are moved to think and act. That’s why PSU members have come together to produce our own video pieces. The Video Squad (VSquad) meet weekly to discuss and work on ongoing projects which range from a promotional documentary for PSU to covering our events and actions throughout the city. Currently, V-Squad is working on a documentary about the Philadelphia Student Union. The finished documentary will show what the experience of a Philadelphia public high school student is like, and the role PSU has played in members’ lives. Our goal for this video is to show the public exactly what PSU does. We do

a lot of different things at PSU to be effective in our work, and we want to make sure all of it is in the video. One of the most exciting recent developments for PSU has been the opportunity to serve as a model for other youth organizations, in terms of how we utilize media. In the past few months, we have been asked by several organizations to share our model for using media as an organizing tool. Recently, we hosted young people from the Abbott Leadership Institute Youth Media Symposium for an exchange about how we use media in our organizing work. It was a chance for us to learn abut their work and share some of the specifics of how we use media programs for leadership development of our members. We are continuing to build our video program and use it to build the effectiveness of our organization and the strength of our student leaders •

Telling Our Story Pioneering a youth media model

By Azeem Hill


ur radio show, On Blast, is an important part of how we, students, participate in Philadelphia Student Union. It is the only radio show in Philadelphia that’s produced entirely by young people. That means that students produce and edit all of the pieces on our radio show as well as host. In the process of creating the radio show each month, we have learned how to record and edit a radio story in an engaging way that sounds professional. We have also learned critical thinking and research skills in the course of reseaching our topics and preparing for interviews. Our show is a space for students to really learn amazing communication skills that we will take with us for the rest of our lives. On Blast is also one of the only radio shows in this city that is produced by organizers. We produce an hour long show each month and we have used each show as a way to further our organizing work. Some of the topics that we’ve covered recently include an interview with former School Reform Commissioner Heidi

Ramirez in which we got the chance to ask her about teacher quality; a discussion of how people learn best; the story of how a community organized to keep William Penn High School open; and a feature about the history of multiracial poor peoples’ organizing in Philadelphia. We also regularly cover what is happening

inside our specific schools and our district as a whole. Our show currently airs every Wednesday nights from 6-7pm on 88.1FM WPEB in West Philadelphia. You can also listen to our show online and even download our podcast at •

Simone Waller records an interview with a recent graduate from the Willam Penn School District. The audio of this interview became part of a larger radio story about inequitable school funding that aired on PSU’s radio show, On Blast.


“Beat China!” Schools and the Global Economy By Dan Jones & Azeem Hill


key feature of any public education system is its purpose. Right now, a lot of people are putting forward the idea that the purpose of our schools is to prepare students to “compete in the global economy.” The proponents of this framework span the political spectrum, from Newt Gingrich to Barack Obama, but is it really the best thing for students?

Aquill Evans takes part in a student led workshop about the global economy, during a PSU meeting. Photo by JJ Tiziou.


First of all let’s take a look at the global countries, we are interested in seeing economy. When we look around we what we have in common with them see the gentrification of our neighbor- and working together to increase rehoods for the sake of making Philadel- spect for humanity. phia a ‘world class city’, massive foreThe competition framework says closures on our neighborhoods across that students are going to be competthe country, and an economic reces- ing for jobs, but if the global economy sion that has left our families with no does not undergo some fundamental money while Wall Street bankers have restructuring, there might not be many made off with billions. jobs left at all. We’ve lost 2 million Secondly, what jobs are we go- jobs since the recession started 2 years ing to be competing for exactly? Ac- ago, and many of those job losses have cording to Quintessential Careers, been classified as permanent. Everybetween 2002 and 2012 “the Labor where on the news we hear about a Department expect[ed] more than 7.5 “jobless recovery”. So the economy million new jobs in the 20 occupations can bounce back and we still won’t be with the largest growth [but] almost 6 able to survive? Low wage workers, million of those new jobs (accounting who make on average $7.09 an hour, for 17 of the 20 largest growth occu- make up 24% of the workforce, a pations) require job-seekers with lim- number which is increasing. ited education and provide minimal So when President Obama says, training -- and are typically identified as he did in a speech in Ohio on Sepas low-wage jobs.” tember 9, 2009, that “an educated Then there is the “competition” workforce is essential for America part. This framework dis-empowers to compete and win. . . if we want to students by prescribing for us what out-compete the world tomorrow, we our goals and values should be. In must out-educate the world today,” we order to take our place in the global are left with some questions: Is it beteconomy, do we ter for students have to accept from across the and align our Is it better for students from country and attitudes with world to across the country and the the competition, be competing world to be competing for the for the same extreme individualism, and same scarce jobs, or united to scarce jobs, a ‘survival of the transform the structure that or united to fittest’ mentaltransform the leaves so many of us incapa- structure that ity? We now ble of meeting our needs? live in a world leaves so many where it is easy of us incapable to connect and of meeting our build relationships with someone needs? Should we simply become a from the other side of the globe with a part of the system, or should we be simple click of a button. Some of the critically engaging it to make it truly language around competition encour- work for us, instead of us for it? ages negative attitudes towards other On a much less abstract level, students in other places who are deal- when we think of the reforms put foring with the same issues we are. ward by these proponents of the comBecause of the rise of technol- petition framework, a clear picture ogy it is not possible anymore to hide emerges: school closures and takethe reality of other people around overs, students used as pawns so that the world from our view. Instead of adults can make profits off of curricudehumanizing students from other la, testing, and management models,

“drill and kill” and penal educational models designed to produce easy-to-control workers with basic skills, and a lack of respect for the voices of students, parents, teachers, and community members in what happens to their schools. By Eric Yates At the Philadelphia Student Union, we beig news! PSU has gone national! The Philadelphia Student Union lieve that a key piece of school reform is youth has helped launch the Alliance for Educational Justice (AEJ). AEJ empowerment. Our definition of student success is a national coalition of student-led and inter-generational organizing is one that empowers young people to be able groups and allies working on federal education reform. The goal of AEJ to create the reality that we want to see for ouris to reclaim education for students and parents at a national level. As the selves, our families and our communities. We do people who are directly affected by federal policies, we know what works this through engaging in youth-led organizing and what needs to be improved. And while we recognize the effect our work that includes campaign work, event planorganizing has had on our own communities, we all realize that no one ning, and media. Through this process students organization can have the same efbecome heavily engaged in fect on the national stage. and committed to reclaimAEJ had its first convening ing our education, and gain this past September in Washington, essential tools and skills. D.C. We worked on strengthening If our current educarelationships, determining goals, tion system is built around competition, then an altertalking about strategies and how to native paradigm would be connect each group’s regional work one built around collaboto the national work. ration. Instead of having The best part about the conus compete for grades, we vening is that there was a panel could encourage cooperawith the Department of Education tion. We, as students, feel (DOE) and I was on it! The panel more motivated when our was a chance for AEJ to introduce goal is to help everyone itself and its policy proposals to not just ourselves. We can DOE officials. replace the traditionally oppositional relationship Our policy proposals are: between students and teachers with one based on 1. Access to a quality education for consensus and community all young people regardless of imbuilding. Instead of having migration status school districts and states competing against each 2. Adequate federal funding to other, we can work toprovide all students with opportugether across state lines to nities to learn find genuinely new ways of 3. Rigorous and relevant curricuthinking about education. lum for students Instead of having outside providers compete to run Eric Yates speaking on a panel in front of leadership from the 4. An end to the school to prison US Department of Education, at the first national youth conschools, we can engage pipeline. vening of the Alliance for Educational Justice. communities in a collective process to transform My presentation was about inadtheir schools. equate school funding, something that PSU has successfully organized We strongly hope that everyone wants all around regionally. I spoke about my experience in neighborhood schools students to succeed, but also recognize that there and how under-privileged schools don’t get enough funding to prepare are different ideas about what success means, and students for life after graduation. I spoke about my experience with the that many of those ideas are counter to the incollege application process to the DOE and how the lack of resources terests of our students, our families and commumade it hard for me to apply to schools. (Despite all that. and with the nities, and ignore the realities that we face. We live in a global society, and our education should help of PSU, I will be starting college in the spring at the Community prepare us to make the reality of citizenship in College of Philadelphia.) The really good thing about the panel was that that society meaningful for every person, not just everybody got to speak on behalf of their organization and the members the lucky few. • back home, and that’s what I did for PSU. •

Reclaiming Education on a National Level



Not just a PHILLYthing

Addressing Inequities in School Funding Across Pennsylvania By Gregory Jordan-Detamore & Dylan Washington

Where We Are Coming From In late 2007, a Costing Out Study was released. It was commissioned by the state to find out how much money is needed to give all students in Pennsylvania an adequate education, broken down by school district. It took into account factors such as poverty, English language learners, and cost of living. The results were not surprising, but nonetheless were very important. For example, it found that about 19 out of every 20 districts in the state are underfunded, some by quite significant amounts.

Across PA, there are great disparities in school funding. There is perhaps no better example than in Southeastern PA. In this small region, there are districts, such as Lower Merion and Jenkintown, that

according to the costing-out study, Lower Merion spends $17,184 per student, while it needs $12,211. Reading, on the other hand, spends $7,458 per student, while it needs $13,896.

The average school district in PA only has about 80% of the money it needs, and Philadelphia only has about 70%.

The average school district in PA only has about 80% of the money it needs, and Philadelphia only has about 70%. These numerical disparities translate directly into disparities that can plainly be seen. Districts with a lot of money can have smaller class sizes, better buildings, more counselors and teachers, better resources, and more services for English language learners and special education students. Underfunded districts, on the other hand, suffer. Because school funding is largely dependent on property taxes, school districts in wealthier areas tend to have better schools, as they can collect more money. Meanwhile, school districts in poorer areas tend to have struggling, underperJaileah Gibson (center of circle) leads a workshop about school funding that examines the effects of underfunding and strategizes about next steps in this campaign. Photo by Javier Morris. forming schools.


have significantly more money (per student) than districts such as Philadelphia, Upper Darby, and Reading. For example,

Armed with the results of the costing-out study, education organizers across the state worked very hard last year to push for an increase in school funding, distributed equitably according to need. Governor Rendell’s budget incorporated many of these principles, and with some modifications, was passed a year and a half ago. There were school funding increases across the state. Philadelphia, for example, got about $50 million. Rendell did not want that to be the end, though. He pushed for a six-year plan to increase school funding. Legislators made a commitment to follow through on the six year plan, but continued organizing will be essential to making sure that they follow through on PSU is building off of last year’s successful Student Summit, during which PSU students dialogued about school funding with students from Upper Darby and other suburban areas. Photo by JJ Tiziou. their commitment. Last year, our school funding campaign involved creating a increases that they had hoped for; on the across the state are also facing every day in Community Account booklet to distribute other hand, though, there was still an in- their schools. to elected officials and others. The booklet crease in funding due to stimulus money. With this in mind, Philadelphia Stuincluded stories from students, parents, It is important to note, however, that this dent Union members are working to conteachers, and others about how last year’s funding only lasts for two years. We still nect to other students in rural and suburschool funding increase was helpful to need increases in funding from the state. ban school districts in Pennsylvania. We their schools. That is the basis of this year’s school fund- are making connections with other youth In the Community Account, Some ing campaign. organizations, churches, school officials students shared stories about getting to and even parents. By meeting with stuexperience Advanced Placement classes dents from other places and sharing with for the first time at their school, or hav- Where We Are Going each other about the conditions in our ing more books in their classrooms. SevOur school funding campaign this schools, we have been able to make more eral elementary school parents shared year is based on the understanding that students aware of the way education fundstories about their children getting more underfunding is truly a statewide problem ing works and why we need to organize personalized attention now that class size that needs a statewide strategy. The Cost- around it. By doing this, we are beginning has been reduced at their school. Teachers ing Out Study released in 2007 showed to build a network of young people who talked about how increased funding had that the vast majority of Pennsylvania are actively involved in fighting for equitable school funding. goal of a statewide youth netWe are beginning to build a network of young workOur that can demand equitable funding people who are actively involved in fighting is very important because we know that Philadelphia students can not be effective alone. Legislators need to be hearing for equitable school funding. from people in rural towns, big cities and the suburbs about the importance of the been well spent to bring more technology school districts are not getting enough new school funding formula. We know into the classroom. The idea of the Com- funding to educate their students properly. that this kind of statewide pressure can munity Account was to show legislators That means that lack of qualified teachers, only happen when students across the that the increase in funding is working, crowded classes, and too few resources for state come together and organize around and to make a case for more. English Language Learners are not just school funding. The future of our educaFor this school year, we we not as problems for students in Philadelphia. tion depends on it. • fortunate. School districts did not get the These are problems that most of our peers


learning from the best Every Student Needs Qualified, Effective Teachers By Zakia Royster


o have a qualified and effective teacher in a classroom can make a world of difference for a student. It could mean that we understand the material, are being prepared for college, and are learning how to think for ourselves. Having good teachers can keep students from dropping out. The state of Pennsylvania has a definition for a “Highly Qualified” teacher that says a teacher must have a degree to teach a specific subject in a school and be certified. At my school most of my teachers are “highly qualified” but even some of the ones who may have degrees in their teaching subjects are not getting the students’ attention. That’s where the effectiveness part comes in. One example is a teacher who by college standards is very qualified to teach but has been unable to engage his classroom to learn and where many students are not getting the information. A student at another school recently told me of a “highly qualified” teacher who passed

an entire Biology class with A’s and many in her classroom said they hoped Biology wasn’t on the SAT’s because they would all fail. She said not one student walked away from that class learning Biology. In order to know if teachers are effective, we as students must be allowed to evaluate our teachers, especially at the high school level. This happens in many college classrooms with professors. Why doesn’t in happen in our schools with students who are in classrooms every day? We at the Philadelphia Student Union have been engaged in a teacher quality and

equity campaign for some years now and we will continue to fight this battle until all students in Philadelphia have qualified and effective teachers. We do it because it is wrong to keep students from receiving an equal education. Some schools in the Philadelphia School District have more qualified teachers and lower turnover rates than my school, and that has personally connected me to this campaign. Since I have been working on the teacher quality campaign I have learned a lot about this issue and have worked with many other students, to ensure that our ideas are included when it comes to ensuring that ev-

In order to know if teachers are effective, we as students must be allowed to evaluate our teachers. This happens in many college classrooms with professors. Why doesn’t in happen in our schools with students who are in classrooms every day?

Members of Philadelphia Student Union & Youth United for Change hold a report card that will be used to “grade” the teachers’ contract after negotiations are made final. The report card was presented to the District as part of an action by the Effective Teaching Campaign. The action called for: 1. Incentive grants to attract experienced and effective teachers to hard-to-staff schools 2. Full site selection, with hiring decisions made by committees of teachers, parents, principals, and at the high school level, students. 3. Performance standards and evaluations for teachers, developed in collaboration with teachers. 4. Teacher-driven professional development.


ery student gets a high quality education. I have been working with the “Effective Teaching Campaign”* in Philadelphia where we are the student voice in a platform endorsed by over 25 different organizations from the NAACP to Asian Americans United. One aspect of the campaign that I believe would be instrumental in changing the distribution of teachers in the district is to offer “teacher incentive grants” to hard to staff schools like mine. Many teachers have told us that school climate has a big impact on the work they do. Teacher incentive grants are pots of money that the school community, including teachers could use to pay for school improvements that will keep teachers around and support new teachers. I also believe that students (and parents) should be involved in hiring our teachers and our principals. In early October, over 50 supporters of the Effective Teaching Campaign including myself went to Mayor Nutter’s office. We went because in the city of Philadelphia, the mayor has to sign off on

I had a chance to explain to Mayor Nutter why issues like teacher distribution and evaluation are so important to us. To some of us these changes are a matter of graduation or not. the teacher’s contract. Once there, I had a chance to explain to him why issues like teacher distribution and evaluation are so important to us. To some of us these changes are a matter of graduation or not. Having a qualified and effective teacher could be the difference in someone dropping out of school or staying in. We hope that Mayor Nutter will not sign off if the changes needed to make a difference are not included in the contract. Time will only tell what happens when the contract is signed (as of this writing the deadline for the contract is January 15th, 2010) but the students and the city are watching. •

A Letter of Qualities By Shania Morris

Dear Teacher, I need you to see me as all that I can be. I may not seem interested in everything that we do, But care is the one thing I need from you. My education is limited and that’s all wrong. My peer’s wounded souls sing a song. Remember to love, love what you do. How can we find education when your faith isn’t true? I need you to walk me through to success. How can I complete this task under all this stress? The stress from people putting me down. Too-easy work that makes me look like a clown. Maybe knowing you’re here, here with me Stepping out onto victory. What will get me there? Maybe making self goals. Ceasing that harmony of wounded souls. I hope you understand how I feel, and what I want to see, So here are a few things you’ll see from me. An enthusiastic student with such great potential, The way I represent myself will be very influential. I will shine on my peers , old and young. All of your seeds will soon be sprung. Achieving greatness equals coming together and being alert. When all that happens, let’s make it work. When you love, that shows you care, And to care you need to love. As this change comes along we will all rise above. Sincerely, The Hopeful Mind 13

To the Mountain Top Reviving MLK’s Poor People’s Movement By Lawrence Jones Mahoney


he Philadelphia Student Union works on an array of issues from effective teaching to school & state funding to whole school transformation. But this past August, we traveled down to West Virginia to address a related and root cause issue: poverty. We attended the Poverty Initiative Leadership School, which was a week-long gathering of over 150

ing about poverty and a move to organize something bigger. So, we had conference calls and constant emails, setting up logistics and developing the workshops. The participants of the leadership school did daily workshops about four topics: religion, media/communications, the economic crisis, and organizing. We learned about worldwide struggles including the Shackdwellers’ Movement in Durban, South Africa, which is a movement to stop the eviction of poor people by the government. We met with Mazwi, the youth leader of the movement. We learned a lot about the economic apartheid that is faced by the majority of South Africans, and how they are coming together to meet their needs. Learning about what Mazwi has had to face and how he is still persisting is an inspiration to us as young organizers. We also went to Kayford Mountain to meet Larry Gibson and learn about mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is the extraction of coal from a mountain area by the use of explosions. It poisons the environment and the people. Despite the health risks, poor people are forced to take jobs in this industry because there is no other work. Jaileah Gibson (left), Sadae Canty (center) & Nijmie Dzurinko Larry’s family has (right) climb the Kayford Mountain path on their way to see mounowned a majority of the taintop removal coal mining firsthand. Photo by Javier Morris. mountain for over 200 people from across the world to discuss years, but the coal companies have been the re-ignition of Martin Luther King’s trying to get him off the mountain in orPoor People’s Movement. der to get the coal. They tried to buy it The birth of the Leadership School from him, but because he grew up there, started about a year ago when a smaller raised animals there, and loves the moungroup in New York starting meeting, talk- tain, he will never sell it. For standing up


to the coal companies, he has been followed, threatened, and attacked. Talking to him and hearing stories about him growing up and nurturing injured animals, left me both upset that he’s going through this, but also encouraging to see him fight. It gives me more fight for the struggles I am going through. Much of the week was about study, learning about the Poor People’s Movement that MLK had started before he was assassinated. It was a powerful start to our fight in ending poverty. At the end of the week, everyone at the Leadership School started thinking about next steps. We as a group decided that focusing on the religion and media aspects were key. Since then, individuals have met and we are planning conferences for both fronts. Two summers ago, I went to West Virginia for the first time and it was a really powerful experience. It was the first time I realized how the huge gap between rich and poor really affects peoples lives. PSU mainly focuses on education, but we know that there’s an undeniable link between our education system and poverty. Transitioning from being a student to being an alumnus of the Philadelphia Student Union, I see my role has changed. Before, I was doing the work as an organizer and member, speaking up at meetings and rallies, giving ideas, and taking part in leadership. Now, I can focus more on supporting new members and showing that link between education and poverty. Learning about the young people from the Shackdwellers’ Movement to the the coalfields of West Virginia, PSU realizes that youth are a big part of the global economy. We have to be the ones to transform the economy and make it responsive to the needs of all people. And for us to do that, we have to have a good understanding of history as well as of our present situation. If we know what is going on, then we can make positive change. And the Leadership School was one experience that helped us do that. •

Tackling the Drop-Out Crisis with


By Jacob Winterstein

Simone Waller

engineers during a soundtrack studio session.

She & editing skills through her involvement with PSU soundtrack & radio programs.

learned audio engineering


tudent organizers from Sayre, West Philadelphia, Bok, and CAPA, with the assistance of professional musicians and producers recorded “Pushed Out”: a musical story addressing the drop out crisis in Philadelphia. Based on true stories, the songs and accompanying interludes paint a picture that identifies the root causes of the Drop-Out Crisis and proposes solutions. The project focuses on 3 songs integrated into one student’s story dealing with the nearly 50% drop out rate plaguing Philadelphia. Student members worked hard in the studio during their 2month summer break. While working in the Studio students expressed their hopes for the project and the importance of making music. “What I hope to accomplish is for people to see that all students deserve the resources thy need to succeed—not just students at magnet schools.”- Simone, PSU Alum, CAPA High chapter “Personally I hope to create good music...conscious music that charges people with a task and hopefully they can get through that task.” - Khalif, West Philly High chapter “My voice, like my words and things that I say can actually influence people to stay in school even when it gets hard, and take responsibility for their education.” - Sylvia, CAPA High chapter “I hope to help make other stduents see that despite challenges, you can graduate.” -Candace, PSU Alum, Sayre High chapter

The end result of a summer’s worth of hard work is an honest and moving CD that has been used to inspire and organize students to stay in school. Students have been using the CD as a recruitment and educational tool. With the help of supporters we will continue to copy and distribute the CD to over a thousand public high school students. Students have helped design a curriculum about the

drop out crisis that engages young people in identifying causes of the crisis and creating student-driven solutions. This new curriculum is being used in classrooms and community centers across the city. The music team is back in the lab cooking up a new set of songs for the new year. Stay on the look out for our next CD! •

Want to hear Pushed Out ? You can listen for free at Click on “Movement Music” under the multi-media initiative tab on the left side of the home page. This will lead you to a page where you can listen to the CD in its entirety. On this page you can download a lesson plan to be used with the title track Pushed Out. This lesson plan is interactive and engaging. It gets participants to think critically about the root causes of Philadelphia’s 50% drop out crisis - but can be applied to any place where this is an issue. It includes an activity in which participants identify their goals and what it will take to achieve them. If you would like to download the songs to your computer or mp3 player you can do so in the ITunes music store. If you want a hard copy of the CD go to Search “Pushed Out” or the Philadelphia Student Union on either of these sites. Get the CD, pass it on to your friends. If you’re an adult give the CD to the young people you work with. Thanks! Be on the look out for the next installment of Movement Music from the Philadelphia Student Union. • 15

Students stand at the crest of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia with other human rights organizers from across the United States & the world, during an international Leadership School hosted by The Poverty Initiative. Photo by Javier Morris.

4205 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, PA 19104 Telephone: (215) 253-4586 Facebook: Philadelphia Student Union www . phillystudentunion . org

The Philadelphia Student Union exists to build the power of young people to demand a high quality education in the Philadelphia public school system. We are a youth-led organization and we make positive changes in the short term by learning how to organize to build power. We also work toward becoming life-long learners and leaders who can bring diverse groups of people together to address the problems that our communities face.

Philadelphia Student Union 4205 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, PA 19104

Philadelphia Student Union

The Union Rep Fall/Winter 2009  

Fall/Winter 2009. The student-written newsletter of Philadelphia Student Union.