Sit-In or Call-In

Guest post by Kathy Newman.

We all know sitting is bad for us, right? But right now there is a group of Philadelphia parents, teachers and students sitting-in at Tom Corbett’s Harrisburg office, demanding that the Governor and the State Legislature pass a decent budget for education this month.

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor's office!

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor’s office!

They're not going anywhere until he gets the message.

They’re not going anywhere until he gets the message.

People power at the Capitol!

People power at the Capitol!

You might not be able to get to Harrisburg to join the sit-in, but there is something you can do. And you can do it sitting down. Five-to-ten minutes of phone calling and emailing on Monday, June 30th, from the comfort of your favorite chair, will make a real difference in this year’s budget negotiation.

It’s hard to believe that a few simple phone calls can make a difference. But our friends at Education Voters say that when lawmakers hear from parents across the state about education they do a better job of putting education first when they are finalizing their budget deals.

The truth is that some of our more sympathetic Democratic lawmakers will have more power than usual in this budget cycle, and a call from you (and you and you and you and you) will remind them that, for many of us in the state, education is a critical issue.

What’s at stake right now? This week the PA House passed a budget that eliminates the $241 million increase in state funding for proposed Ready to Learn Block grants and replace this with a paltry $70 million increase in Basic Education Funding. Under the House budget, PA school districts would lose about 70% of the increases in state funding they were expecting to receive this year and that they were relying on to balance their budgets. That’s a loss of over $2 million for Pittsburgh Public Schools alone.

The House budget is irresponsible and unacceptable.  It does not call for a shale tax or a cigarette tax.  Instead, it relies on the sale of state liquor stores (which the Senate has so far not supported), gimmicky sources of one-time funding, and the suspension of selected tax credits to balance the budget.

Though it’s the end of the month, and the budget was supposed to be locked up by now, budget negotiations are just beginning. While the budget is still fluid and negotiations are taking place, advocates must speak out loudly and with one voice in support of responsible funding for public schools this year. If we do not speak up now, public education will likely receive little more than scraps in the budget this year.

As with previous Call to Action for Education days, we are asking for broad participation from all organizations and individuals across the Commonwealth.  It is incredibly important the legislators in Harrisburg see that people are paying attention.  Communities are using these call-in-days to help spread the word about what is happening to our schools, so please join us again!

WHEN:  Monday, June 30, 2014

WHAT:  Call to Action for Public Education – It’s time for a fair budget for PA’s students!

HOW TO PARTICIPATE:  Mark your calendar and plan to ask your own network to take action

Mark your calendar today for Monday, June 30th – and do 3 things in 10 minutes to make a difference! Click here for your legislators’ phone numbers. Click here for tips on how to make a good phone call.

  1. Call your State Senator.
  2. Call your State Representative.
  3. Call Gov. Corbett’s office at (717) 787-2500.

Ask them to:

  • Support the adoption of a shale tax, cigarette tax and any reasonable measure to raise revenue and close tax loopholes.
  • Support an increase in the Basic Education Funding line that is equal to what was in the proposed Ready to Learn Block Grant.
  • Support and advocate for state funding for charter school reimbursement to be restored.
  • Support SB 1316/HB2138, the special education funding and accountability reform bill.  (Additional information about this bill can be found atwww.educationvoterspa.org)

When you are done with your call would you mind heading over to the Yinzercation facebook page and reporting on your calls? If you tweet, you can also promote the day using #educationpa and #pabudget. Thanks to everyone who is sitting and calling in for fair education funding!

From Bad to Worst

From bad to worse to – what’s worse than worse? A new report released this week shows that “the financial condition of school districts across the Commonwealth continues to deteriorate.” The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) surveyed the state’s 500 school districts and got some chilling results. [PASA-PASBO Budget Report, 6-5-14] With 56% of districts responding, the researchers found that:

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more of our children’s teachers. Look at Wilkinsburg right here next to Pittsburgh: they just announced that students will lose 18 more teachers. That’s 14% of the faculty, and comes on top of the 10 teachers and three other staff members they lost last year. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-14]
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since Gov. Corbett’s historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest. (This is especially awful since it’s the earliest grades where research shows small class sizes really make a strong difference for students, especially our most disadvantaged students.)
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

These conditions aren’t just “worse” for our children, they are quickly becoming some of the worst in the nation. Pennsylvania ranks as one of the worst in terms of the proportion of school funding provided at the state level, pushing responsibility down on local taxes, and worsening inequality. And this isn’t just at the preK-12 level: over the past four years, Gov. Corbett has cut public college and university funding by an astonishing 20% (forcing institutions to push costs onto students through rising tuition bills). Pennsylvania college students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Are we really trying to be the worst in the country when it comes to educating our children? What if we tried to be one of the best, instead?

The Pennsylvania budget must be passed by the end of this month, so now is the time to tell our legislators our students deserve the best, not the worst. Please come to Harrisburg with us on June 18th! We’ve got a bus and made all the arrangements, all you have to do is get on. Please sign up here and we’ll send you all the details.

HarrisburgTripFlyer6-14

Get on the Bus!

After proposing a slight increase in education funding back in the winter, Gov. Corbett is now fishing in his own budget to cut over $1.3 billion. Guess where those cuts could come from? Education again, of course.

The state has been short on revenue for the past six months and now legislators are scrambling to put together a final budget by the end of this month, saying “all options are on the table.” While acknowledging that, “There is very broad support for increased education spending,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), maintains “it is hard to get to increased education spending when you have a gap to fill.” [Post-Gazette, 6-2-14] Of course, the Republicans who control both the House and Senate refuse to discuss the corporate tax giveaways that have tripled over the past decade (with the blessing of both parties), creating a large portion of that gap.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state continue to cut into the educational bone. Just this week we learned that Pittsburgh plans to slash more world languages, with schools across the city eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses. [Post-Gazette, 6-1-14] These kinds of cuts take our city and state in exactly the wrong direction. Is it any wonder that the Washington Post just listed Gov. Corbett as the nation’s #1 least likely incumbent to remain in office? In a new poll, Corbett is already trailing the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf by 20 points. [Philly.com, 6-2-14]

Voters may take out their ire on the sitting Governor in the fall elections. But in the meantime, there’s a looming state budget crisis and you would expect our legislators to be hard at work finding a way to pay for our public schools. You would be wrong. Instead, on Monday, the House of Representatives approved a new bill (172-24!) telling schools that they can post the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in the hallways. [Post-Gazette, 6-3-14] Perhaps they meant this ironically, to let students know that they ought to place their trust somewhere else, since they can no longer have faith in the legislature to provide the most basic resources for their education. [For more on this ridiculous bill and our local legislator who sponsored it, see “Trick or Treat.”]

Clearly it’s time for us to go tell our elected representatives that students are more important than mottos. Yinzercation is sponsoring a bus trip to Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 18th. Please “Get on the Bus” for education justice with us! It will be a great day and we’ll take care of all the planning, you just need to show up. Children are welcome, though be aware that it’s a long day (we will leave early and return in the evening). Pittsburgh parent Sara Goodkind is organizing the day, and our state-wide partner, Education Voters PA, is kindly providing the bus for us. Please click here to sign up, and we will send you the details.

Grab a friend and make it a day. We are going to have fun. And we’re going to hold our legislators accountable for adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools.

Our Missing $200 Million

We’d like our $200 million back, please. That’s how much money charter schools in Pennsylvania collected last year for special education in excess of what they actually spent on special education for students. Charter schools took in over $350 million, but spent only $150 million. (Or $350,562,878 vs. $156,003,034 to be exact.) So where’s our extra $200 million? (OK, $193,559,844 to be exact.)

Our colleague, Mark Spengler, who is a public education advocate in the Lehigh Valley and tracked down this data, points out that, “charter schools are not obligated to spend special education funding for special education purposes. That money can be spent for numerous miscellaneous reasons including billboards and mailer advertisements.” [Lower Macungie Patch, 5-26-14]

Last year, the Pennsylvania legislature created a Special Education Funding Commission to devise a new funding formula. Deplorably, the old formula did not reimburse schools for the actual cost of educating students with special needs, which resulted in great inequities (and under-funding for some of the state’s most vulnerable children). The bi-partisan commission’s recommendations formed the basis for House Bill 2138 and Senate Bill 1316 now under consideration. These bills would create a fair and rational system of funding special education in Pennsylvania based on actual costs. However, Harrisburg lobbyists are threatening to kill the two bills.

Our partner, Education Voters PA, is making it easy for us to help fight back: click here to send an email to your state senator and representative (you can keep the suggested wording on the form, or edit your digital postcards). This took me less than 12 seconds to do. EdVoters explains that our senators and representatives need to hear the following in support of SB 1316 / HB 2138:

  • “The current system of funding special education is broken and unfair. It does not provide enough resources for the services children need and it does not ensure that all special education dollars are spent on special education services. 
  • “State special education funding should be distributed to both school systems and charter schools based on the level of services that students need. Allocating taxpayer dollars differently to school districts and charter schools doesn’t make sense. All of our public schools should receive funding distributed by the same allocation formula.
  • “State special education funding should be spent ONLY on providing students with services. Any excess special education funding should be returned to the state and allocated to help other children get the services they need. If some schools receive and keep more special education dollars than they are spending on services for children, these schools are reaping a financial advantage at the expense of children with special needs in Pennsylvania. 
  • “If the legislature chooses to freeze special education funding at current levels for charter schools, no additional money should accrue to charter schools based on the old, flawed system for funding special education. Any new special education funding for charter schools must be based on the new law and fair to all of Pennsylvania’s special needs children.”

If we can’t get our $200 million back to help students who actually have special education needs, the very least we can do is urge our representatives to pass these special education funding and accountability reform bills. That’s just common sense and rationale. And above all, fair to Pennsylvania’s children.

The Unfulfilled Promise of Brown

Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision desegregating schools. To be sure, much has changed since 1954 here in Pittsburgh and across the country. The Steel City now regularly tops the list of “best” cities to live in, raise a family, buy a house, and see public art. We have the best views, most dramatic entry to the city, and even the best tree canopy! [Post-Gazette, 4-28-14] But “best” for whom?

Despite our many successes, Pittsburgh remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States with trenchant social, economic, health, and educational disparities. Consider this:

  • Pittsburgh has the third-highest poverty rate among working-age (18-64) African Americans in the country (31% in 2011). [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Nearly half (45%) of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty; and a whopping 53% of black children under the age of 5 live in poverty. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Compared to other cities, “African-American babies are much more likely to die here.” Pittsburgh has the largest disparity in infant deaths in the nation: the infant mortality rate for African-American babies (14.5 per 1000) is twice that for white babies (5.7), and 25% higher than the national average (11.6). [Post-Gazette, 7-7-13]
  • Pittsburgh has the highest black teen pregnancy rate in the country. [Post-Gazette, 7-7-13]
  • One recent study found that 12.1% of Allegheny County students have asthma and the black asthma rate is especially high: overall “17 percent of blacks in the county had asthma, while 9 percent of whites had the disease.” [Post-Gazette, 1-21-14]
  • Compared to all major metropolitan areas, African Americans here have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (19% in 2011), and it’s been this way for years. That’s 1 out of every 5 African Americans who wants to work and can’t find a job, and 2.6 times the unemployment rate for whites. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • African Americans in Pittsburgh earn significantly less than their white counterparts: “In 2011, the average African-American man with a full-time job earned $39,132 in the Pittsburgh region,” which was more than 40% less than white men. Black women earned even less (an average of $37,138). And these numbers are worse than other African-American workers nationally. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • African Americans are stuck in low-paying occupations: “Only 23 percent of African-Americans in Pittsburgh work in management, business, science and arts occupations, the second-lowest percentage among the top 40 regions, whereas 34 percent work in service occupations, the highest percentage among major regions.” [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Pittsburgh has become the least diverse city in the country: only 12% of the population is nonwhite, while the average among major metropolitan areas is 32%, and the country as a whole is 24% – still twice as high as Pittsburgh. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]

These statistics are reflected in outcomes for Pittsburgh students, with a “racial gap” in graduation rates, attendance rates, disciplinary action rates (that feed the school-to-prison pipeline), and test scores. Black students here are disproportionately in schools with the fewest resources and live in communities that have been impacted the most by multiple waves of school closures. In short, Pittsburgh has yet to fulfill the promise of the historic Brown decision as this “racial gap” illustrates a persistent opportunity gap.

That is why Yinzercation is co-sponsoring a rally on Tuesday, May 13th, at 4PM at Freedom Corner in the Hill District. As the flyer below states, “We are determined to reclaim the promise of a just nation that lives by the principles articulated in the Brown v. Board decision: equity in public decision-making, and policies that advance the hopes and dreams of all Americans, without regard to their social or economic status.” Please bring the kids over after school – we will have food and snacks, thanks to our 10 national sponsors, and 10 local sponsors, including the coalition partners of Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-Pep), the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, and the Women’s Walk for Peace Committee.

Brown v. Board of Education was a historic decision. Come be a part of more history in the making.

Brown.v.BoardFlyer

It’s Call Your Legislator Day

Today’s the day! We are joining Education Voters PA for a state-wide call-your-legislator day. Over the past three years, our children have suffered enough: they’ve lost thousands of their teachers, art, music, tutoring, library, nurses, counselors, athletics, and so much more. When will it end? Our legislators are debating the state budget right now and things will really heat up over the next few weeks.

Unfortunately, the news out of Harrisburg is not good. Back in February, Gov. Corbett proposed a state budget that would flat fund basic K-12 education, but included some small increases for special education and early childhood education. He also proposed creating a new block grant program, which would come with many strings attached. [See “More Bad than Good”] To pay for it, Corbett’s proposal relies on inflated expectations of leftover year-end revenues that could be carried forward into the next fiscal year. [See “Paying for It”] However, that appears highly unlikely given the latest state revenue projections.

Last Thursday, the state’s Independent Fiscal Office calculated that Pennsylvania would be short $1 billion in revenue needed to fund Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget. Now the governor is looking for ways to cut $800 million from his plan. Will it come out of education? (Or human services? Or any of the other critical things we need?) At the same time Corbett looks to make more cuts, “corporate tax collections have dropped by $292 million compared to last year” because of the numerous tax giveaways our legislators have enacted in recent years. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 5-2-14]

Now is the time to speak up and tell our legislators that, as Education Voters says, “Pennsylvania’s children cannot afford another year of inadequate state funding and political posturing.” Why make phone calls? Just 10 calls in one day can get a legislator to pay attention to an issue: joining together with thousands of other parents, students, teachers, and community members across Pennsylvania on a single day means we can amplify our voices. Please take just a few minutes and make three phone calls:

  1. Call your State Senator. [click here to find the number]
  2. Call your State Representative. [click here to find the number]
  3. Call Gov. Corbett’s office at (717) 787-2500.

For the past three years, we have been demanding adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for our public schools. Want some tips on what else you might say? Here is what Education Voters suggests we all ask our legislators:

  • Make the proposed increase of $230 million a permanent source of funding in the Basic Education Fund (BEF). This increase should NOT be distributed to school districts in block grants that have many strings attached and can be eliminated in future budgets.
  • Allocate state funding using a fair, transparent, and accurate funding formula. This formula should take political deal making out of the budget process and be based on current data and the real costs of educating students with different needs.
  • Keep the proposed increase for special education of $20 million in the budget. After six years of flat funding for special education, we applaud the decision to finally increase the funding.
  • Restore charter school reimbursement payments to local school districts. Public schools lost hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding when Governor Corbett eliminated this line item in 2011. The legislature made changes to the public education system by adding charter schools, and then put in place the charter reimbursement line to help address the additional costs communities were facing.  Cutting this funding hurt both community school district students and charter school students and compounded an already difficult situation. These funds should be restored until a formula is adopted.
  • Ensure that any savings from the elimination of the charter school pension double-dip payments stay in the education budget and be returned to local school districts. These savings should not go into the general fund where legislators can spend them as they please.

These phone calls work! If you want some more inspiration, check out this fun one minute video of Pittsburgh Public School parents making phone calls in 2012, the year we saved $100 million from being cut from the early childhood budget:

Score! Save!

In keeping with our athletic theme from earlier this week: we’ve had a SCORE! After the Pittsburgh school board heard public testimony and questions raised by the community about proposed cuts to PE classes, the district withdrew the package of graduation requirement changes that contained those cuts from board consideration. [See “Cutting PE”] At least for now.

This is a real victory. The school board (and the public) deserve more time for due diligence on proposals that involve students losing more teachers and that raise equity issues. My hope is that the district now uses this opportunity to answer the community’s questions and address larger concerns of student health and wellness (we welcome comments from the district here on the blog and invite use of this space to help inform the conversation). Parents need to be a part of that dialogue, too.

So now that we’ve had a SAVE with phys ed, please SAVE these three dates:

1. May 5th: The community schools report back meeting has been rescheduled for Monday at 6PM at the Community Empowerment Association (7120 Kelly St / 15208). Join the Pittsburgh delegation that attended the Community Schools National Forum in Cincinnati a few weeks ago. The delegation consisted of parents, school board members, representatives from the Mayor’s Office and City Council, teachers, faith leaders, foundation personnel, and other community members. Members of the group will share what they learned and we will discuss what community schools could look like for Pittsburgh.

2. May 6th: Yinzercation will be teaming up again with Education Voters PA for a statewide call-in-day. We’ll be joining thousands of parents, students, teachers and community members from across the state to speak up in support of our public schools and telling legislators in Harrisburg that Pennsylvania’s children cannot afford another year of inadequate state funding and political posturing. It will take less than 10 minutes of your time, so block off a coffee-break on Tuesday. I will send more details, including how to reach your representatives and talking points, next week.

3. May 13th: Yinzercation is helping to co-sponsor an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. This is the Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools and we will be rallying to bring attention to the unfulfilled promise of that decision. Plan to bring your kids after school at 4PM to the historic Freedom Corner in the Hill District for performances, snacks, and more. Details to follow.

Cutting PE

OK, I’ll admit it. If there was one class in high school that I was tempted to cut, it was PE (no, mom, I never skipped class – I was way too much of a rule follower to do that). I was no athlete, though I did play on the volleyball team, and Phys Ed was generally torture for me. I think I still have dodge ball nightmares. But my own kids have had two terrific PE teachers who have demonstrated to me just how important a quality gym program can be for students. And now instead of cutting PE, I’m worried about proposed cuts to PE.

Tonight at the Pittsburgh school board’s public hearing, a number of people are speaking out about proposed changes to the district’s PE requirements. The changes are part of a package of new high school graduation requirements, which would halve the number of required PE credits, reducing them from 2 to 1 (each course is a .5 credit). Effectively that means that Freshmen and Sophomores would take gym, but it would be optional for Juniors and Seniors.

My understanding is that the district is trying to make more room for Biology in 9th grade, perhaps adding lab time (though at least some schools have had Freshman biology labs in the past, and still accommodated PE, so I am unsure of this rationale – if this is indeed behind the proposed changes). Some people have told me that there is concern about low student scores on the Keystone exam and that we are trading PE time, which “doesn’t count,” for test-prep time in an area “that counts.” (If that’s true, this would be another example of the consequences for students of high-stakes testing.) There have also been scheduling issues at some schools with upper-class students fitting in their AP courses.

In a meeting a few weeks ago, the district told me the changes were being proposed to bring PE credits in line with other course offerings and to provide more choices. I’m not sure why we can’t continue requiring PE and offer more choices at the same time. Gym was never my favorite class, but I had to take it every year of high school – and it was a whole lot better when I got a chance to choose aerobics (and even archery!) over being pummeled with a dodge ball.

I’m particularly worried about the huge number of students who are not getting adequate daily exercise: a report released last spring by the Institute of Medicine shows that only half of kids are meeting national guidelines. Their “committee recommends that elementary school students spend an average of 30 minutes per day in physical education class, and middle and high school students should spend an average of 45 minutes per day in physical education class.” [Institute of Medicine Report, 5-23-13] That’s 45 minutes every day, not once or twice a week, and not for just two years out of four in high school. If we are serious about the “whole child,” shouldn’t we be thinking about the obesity epidemic?

The bottom line is, with these proposed changes will come additional teacher cuts. Our students have already lost so many of their teachers – and with fewer adults in the building there is a real impact on overall education, not just physical education. For example, my kids’ K-8 school has lost so many adults that there aren’t enough eyeballs to sufficiently staff recess. While rumors are flying and I’ve heard unofficial reports with even higher numbers, here is what I understand the district proposed to the board last week:

  • Allderdice (.5 cut), from 7 to 6.5 teachers.
  • Brashear (3 cuts), from 7 to 4 teachers.
  • Carrick (1 cut), from 4 to 3 teachers.
  • Obama (no cuts) still at 3 teachers.
  • Perry (.5 cut), from 4.5 to 4 teachers.
  • Sci Tech (no cuts) still at 2 teachers.
  • Uprep (2.5 cuts), from 3 to 1.5 teachers.
  • Westinghouse (.5 increase), from 2 to 2.5 teachers.

If the board approves these cuts, it will actually be up to individual school principals to schedule PE courses. I worry that this means we will have another equity issue on our hands, similar to school libraries, with some buildings robbing Peter to pay Paul and keep a full complement of PE offerings, while others use the approved reductions to move resources to other areas. Making PE fungible could lead to more inequity. [See “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books”]

The Pittsburgh school board will be voting on the proposed changes in graduation requirements at its meeting this Wednesday. Here are the questions I hope they will consider – and that I hope the district will answer, to help us all understand more:

  1. Are our students going to lose more teachers?
  2. Will there be cuts to K-8 teachers and classes as well?
  3. Are we cutting PE to make room for more test-prep (or testable subjects)?
  4. How are students going to have more choices if there are fewer teachers to offer the courses (which already have 45 kids per class, per the collective bargaining agreement)?
  5. Could we not offer choices and require PE all four years in high school?
  6. How does this proposed reduction in PE requirements help PPS meet the national standards for physical exercise?
  7. How will the district ensure equity in PE offerings?

What questions would you add? If you are concerned about this issue, you can write to the PPS board at boardoffice@pghboe.net. But do it quickly – the stopwatch is running and the gym teacher is about to blow the whistle for the last time.

Come to Brunch

Do you like jazz? Do you like to eat? Do you want to support a simply incredible, grassroots effort led by local parents to help some of the most struggling students in Pittsburgh?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, clear your lunchtime calendar for Saturday May 10th. Seriously. Go to your calendar and write in “11AM, Jazz Brunch, Manchester Elementary School, 1612 Manhattan Street, 15233.” Here’s why:

This fundraiser is being held by a new initiative called the Pittsburgh Struggling Student Association, or PSSA (a delightfully ironic acronym, given that those letters usually stand for the state’s system of standardized high-stakes tests), organized by parents in the Manchester neighborhood on the Northside (who may or may not have intended for their acronym to be delightfully ironic).

The group is currently running an all-volunteer program they developed themselves called “The Math Doctors,” to help students at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 learn math skills. Volunteers show up in the classroom wearing surgical masks and help students save their “patients” (math problems). The students apparently love it. And now those parents are creating a summer camp called Math, Mud, and More that will combine math lessons with a new edible garden (the “mud”) and plain old fun.

These efforts are the brainchild of Mr. Wallace Sapp and his wife, Ms. Lisa Freeman. Some of you may remember them from the “Manchester Miracle” eighteen months ago, when our post about the empty library shelves at that school went viral. Within days we had thousands and thousands of people all over the world, and right down the street, sending books to fill the shelves. Famous authors were tweeting our messages. News reports of the campaign caught the attention of local activists who solicited donations and labor to create an entirely new and gorgeous library space for the students. And Mr. Wallace was there every day opening all those boxes of donated books. In fact, he is in the school nearly every day of the year as a volunteer.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

A couple weeks ago Mr. Wallace invited me to his home to learn more about his idea for the Math, Mud, and More summer camp. While our kids played games together, I talked to Ms. Lisa, who is also a case manager for the Salvation Army, about her efforts to get local parents engaged in their children’s education. Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 is a very special place, serving a tremendous number of families living in poverty: 89% of the students receive free and reduced price lunch and many parents face multiple barriers and challenges to engaging more fully with the school. Eighty-nine percent of the students are African American and the school provides regional classrooms for autistic support, multi-disability support, emotional and therapeutic support, and life skills support.

When Wallace and Lisa set out to do something, they get it done. (They are also working with a group to get a free children’s health clinic at the school.) Their enthusiasm is contagious. Honestly, you cannot say no to these two beautiful people. I have learned a lot from them, and we should all be paying attention to their wisdom.

Their camp will serve 30 kids this summer, with the involvement of many current and retired teachers. There will be reading coaches. Slippery Rock University and the University of Pittsburgh are both partnering with them, to prepare college students to be excellent substitute teachers. The camp will be held at the school, where the kids will be turning part of the school grounds into a garden. They will receive a free lunch every day. The entire program falls under the fiscal sponsorship of the Manchester Citizens Corporation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit community development organization.

Manchester principal, Ms. Theresa Cherry, practically gushes about the program, saying that it “embodies some of the best principles of education.” In a letter of support for the Pittsburgh Struggling Students Association, she writes, “The transformative power of whole community involvement in children’s lives lies in its ability to help students understand we are all partners in their education.” After explaining how she feels this summer camp will benefit the students she continues, “This may seem a little over the top for a typical support letter, but it is at the heart of what I believe that education is all about; helping individuals achieve their potential.” Indeed.

Transformative power. Whole community involvement. Kids achieving their potential. Parents acting at the grassroots level, responding effectively to local educational needs. Let’s help make Math, Mud, and More as big a success as the Manchester Miracle in the school library. It starts with us being willing to show up for an hour to have lunch together on Saturday, May 10th.

That’s exactly one week before the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation ruling. With equity issues staring us in the face here in Pittsburgh, we have certainly not achieved the full promise or potential of the Brown decision. But this is one thing we can do together: please come to lunch. And bring a friend or two.

PghStrugglingStudentAssocBrunch

D.E.B.A.T.E. Today

D- Democracy
E- Education
B- Be there
A- At 6PM
T- To learn
E- Exciting!

That about sums it up. But here are a few more details. You haven’t heard from me in over a week because Yinzercation and the PA Interfaith Impact Network have been super busy organizing the Democratic Candidate Gubernatorial Education Debate. (That spells DCGED and isn’t nearly as exciting as D.E.B.A.T.E.!) Dozens of community volunteers have been hard at work on this event, now all you have to do is show up.

Really. This is important. We want to show these candidates that Southwest Pennsylvania is serious about public education and that it needs to be a top priority in Harrisburg. Over 200 people have already RSVPed on the Facebook event page. Have you? Can you help spread the word?

BE THERE TODAY. Tuesday, April 8th  at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12
515 N. Highland Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15206
(Bus Service: 89 and 71B. Free parking across the street at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.)

Doors open at 6PM with music by the Obama Steel Drum Band. Bring your questions for the candidates! The doors will close promptly at 6:50PM for the live broadcast, which will be moderated by WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester. Please allow time to get through security.

With last week’s horrible Supreme Court decision allowing unfettered campaign donations from the super-rich, it will be getting even harder for ordinary folks to get the attention of candidates and elected representatives. (If you have a few extra million laying around for political contributions, let me know!) We produced this entire event with a budget of $0. Yes, zero. This is as grassroots as it gets. And this is our chance to help these candidates see what real people really care about. So please re-arrange your schedule if you have to. See you tonight!

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