By Kathleen Melville
On rainy days, the ceiling of my classroom leaks. My students and I know just how to rearrange the room and just where to place the bucket to accommodate the steady drip. It has been leaking for six months.
Last week, the handle of our classroom door fell off. After a few instances of near-panic, when we were momentarily locked in the room, I realized it won’t be fixed in the near future. I taped down the latch.
For over three years, the toilet in our girls’ bathroom was broken, wrapped in a trash bag. This year, someone on our staff finally broke down and hired a private plumber to repair it.
In the School District of Philadelphia, broken things do not get fixed. You can put in a work order, but except in the most dire situations, you’re better off inventing your own solution than waiting on the District to send out a maintenance worker.
Still, my school is one of the places where I am happiest. It’s where my work is. It’s where my students grow up—from nervous 9th graders to self-assured seniors—and where I have grown into the teacher I am today. It’s where I can count on warm greetings, tough challenges, and earnest support from just about everyone. And despite its hazards, it’s one of the safest places I know. It’s our home.
On my drive to school each morning, I pass the old West Philadelphia High School. The looming gothic building is gradually transforming from a historic school into luxury condos. I watch graffiti disappear from the walls and young trees appear in freshly poured sidewalks. The place buzzes with investment, with the anticipation of value, even on rainy days.
In my neighborhood in South Philly, I sometimes pass by the old Bok High School. Another looming stone building, bereft of students, Bok closed in 2013, along with 22 other schools. My friends rave about the views from the new rooftop bar, but I am scared of the ghosts.
In both cases, private investors initiated major upgrades that the School District could never afford. With over thirty percent of Philly’s students now attending charter schools, the District does not have the funds to maintain its schools. So it has sold many of its older buildings, in order to pay the charter schools, which move into new buildings, often at outrageous cost, in order to attract more students from the District. Meanwhile, Bok Bar and West Lofts are enjoying excellent returns on investment. The cycle is maddeningly inefficient and financially disastrous, with private interests exploiting our teetering funding structure for public schools.
I cannot imagine how this two-tiered system of schools will sustain itself. Instead, I hope that charter school teachers and public school teachers will begin to work together to demand more funding, transparency, and accountability of our leaders. We will certainly need to be organized in order to withstand the latest attack on our brick and mortar—cyber schools.