Students in underprivileged Pennsylvania school districts hard at work while lawmakers waver over funding

PHILADELPHIA — (TodayNews) — Nilla Miller didn’t dwell on the shortcomings of her education when she spoke at her high school prom. Instead, she talked about everything that she and her classmates have achieved.

They scored high even in the cramped, unair-conditioned classrooms, which grew increasingly sweltering as the summer months approached—the opposite of what it was at the beginning of the year when the heating wasn’t working and it was too cold to concentrate. Athletes set new records even on a dirt track that does not meet state standards.

Miller praised Penn Wood High School’s ’23 graduation on a hot June morning at the Hagan Arena at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, without saying much about how the Pennsylvania public schools let them down. She told her classmates and their families that they were “the coolest class ever to do this”.

“We left our mark not only here, but in every room we entered,” she said.

But overcoming adversity was more than just a graduation theme.

A few months earlier, a Pennsylvania court recognized a reality that Penn Wood students face every day: William Penn County students and five others in Pennsylvania have not received the education they are entitled to under the state constitution. The court ordered the state to change its system, although it did not specify how or how quickly.

By seeking fairness in funding in court, financially struggling Pennsylvania counties have been on the beaten track of school reform. For decades, school districts across the country, stymied by a lack of resources, have taken legal action to force states to give them a fair shake.

These lawsuits were not the solution they were once thought to be. In many cases, legislative action does not cover the true cost of balancing public education. In others, major reform efforts resulted in short-term change but failed to succeed when the political or economic climate became unfavorable.

Some states see progress in student achievement and achievement when the state provides more funding, said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Center for Educational Law, who represented the applicant counties in the lawsuit.

“We have certainly seen a history of infusions of investment in school funding that have led to significant changes,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, the prospects for a legislative fix depend on the budgeting process in a divided legislature. Encouraged by the court’s ruling, House Democrats have attempted to funnel more money into public education this year, topping an initial proposal by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro. But it ran into a wall in the Republican-controlled Senate, which proposed a more modest spending plan and sought to push the school voucher system, though it faced strong Democratic-controlled opposition in the other chamber.

Yet students like Miller continue to go to school in areas that are forced to fill gaps with limited funds.

William Penn County used federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds to hire a reading specialist to help fill gaps in academic performance, but that money ran out this year. Superintendent Eric Beckouts said the county would like to keep the position, but it could mean higher taxes for a community that already has one of the highest taxes in the state.

A federally funded mental health contract is another support program that the county may not support. It mattered to Miller, who struggled to find someone to confide in. These needs have only intensified at William Penn and elsewhere as more teens struggle with post-COVID mental health issues, especially teenage girls.

“We changed therapists about three times this year,” Miller said. “So every time I had to get acquainted with someone new. It’s draining. No student wants to meet three different therapists, pour out his heart three times, and tell his story three times to three different people. This needs to be dealt with.”

Lower objects also have to be faced. There are no real science labs at Penn Wood. The rooms are cramped and the classrooms can be overcrowded. The heating and ventilation systems need to be upgraded. District schools must share resources, including teachers and staff.

The district has a 10-year school building improvement plan with ideas for what the 21st century learning environment should look like, but no funds to support it.

“We need resources now,” Becoats said in early June. “Our current budget proposal that we have presented to our board does show a funding gap.”

Miller’s classmate, Paul Wendy, says he never had a full idea of ​​what the other students had until he and Miller went to a nearby high school with a speaking and debating group. It seemed to him that they entered one of the high schools he had seen on TV.

Gorgeous white tiled floors, robots in the hallways. The students had new books and their own laptops. The campus had several gyms and a beautiful spacious dance space.

Miller remembered another difference that was hard to miss.

“I think I even wrote down in my diary when I got home the similarities and differences between our schools. And the main difference was the skin color of the students,” she said. “My school is predominantly black and their school is predominantly white. And I think that was just the moment when the reality — very, very hard — of what is happening in our area really hit me.”

Vandi’s mother, Musu Momo, said her son came home stressed out, talking about the school’s impressive library and how they have an on-campus swimming pool.

“I wish I had the money to move to a better community, to send them to a better school,” she said. “But for now we are here. So I just try to encourage them.”

Vandi said that despite trying to live a normal life at his school, “everything around you is falling apart.”

One of his favorite clubs, Mock Trial, disbanded when the coach who worked with the team moved to another area. The students spent the summer working with the principal to see if another staff member would pick it up, but there were no systems in place to guarantee someone would, Wandy said.

“You just have to put up with it,” Vandy said. “That’s all you can really do.

Often Miller and other students became active. They did this to make sure their class had a yearbook.

Miller plans to attend Spelman College, where he will major in performing arts and theater. However, in high school, stage productions “virtually had no money” to support them, she said.

Nicole Miller, Nilla’s mother, grew up in the area. She got her teacher’s degree, and when she and her husband decided to start a family, they returned home because she loved society so much. She teaches at the same elementary school she attended. According to her, many things remain unchanged for decades, even the smell of the building.

Her love of home came into conflict with the difficulties of the area. She worries about Nilla’s younger brother, who is about to start sixth grade and already feels that things are different elsewhere.

“I don’t want my kids to feel like they’re missing something,” Nicole said. “I don’t want you to feel worse. I don’t want you to feel like you don’t deserve all this.”

Despite all the gaps in funds and resources, the school community has also become active in many ways. One of Nicole’s childhood best friends, a former school psychologist, is now an administrator at Penn Wood. But, when needed, the administrator still puts on the school counselor’s hat to help Nilla. This led to a running joke about how many people Nilla brought into the admin office to connect them with the helpdesk.

“Getting people to do multiple jobs is just the way it is in the county. That’s exactly what people are willing to do here,” Nicole said. “They don’t say, ‘No, I’m not going to do this. No, I don’t have time for this. It’s: “Let me stop what I’m doing and let me help you with it because that’s what you need me to be right now.”

You can’t get it anywhere, she said, but it can also be a good dash to go over. More and more teachers are quitting, and Pennsylvania has seen a particularly high dropout this year. Asking fewer people to work harder can lead to burnout, which in turn makes even fewer people climb.

The way forward after school is also difficult. When Wendy started applying to colleges, the high school counselor was busy all day manipulating hundreds of students. He had to learn to do a lot himself.

“Even though everyone is trying their best to keep things running smoothly, it’s only because of the conditions around us that we can’t access these resources to get help or advice any time we need it,” Wandi said. , who has since decided to attend Thomas Jefferson University to study psychology.

However, Miller spoke little of the school’s shortcomings when referring to her classmates as senior class president. When she thinks of Penn Wood, she thinks of her mother, whose friends graduated from high school and returned to teach. She thinks about relying on her friends when they were in and out of high school with less than other counties.

In a ceremony marked by inside jokes, Mariah Carey quotes and shouts to friends as they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. She told them that the gift of the class is a signing wall: a place where every graduating class can leave their mark forever. at Penn Wood High School.

A reminder, she says, that the school is bigger than its flaws.

“We are more than a small part of the lawsuit,” she said, “and we are more than everything we lack.”


Brooke Schultz is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues.

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