While plans are being made to get Philadelphia students back to the classroom in the wake of the social distancing guidelines implemented to protect them from the Covid-19 virus, one group has never ceased its mission to advocate on their behalf.
Despite the near shut down of the city over a year ago and the subsequent switch to virtual learning, the Philadelphia Home and School Council continued its work serving and advocating on behalf of both the students and their guardians to ensure that their needs and concerns are both heard and addressed.
The mission of the Philadelphia Home and School Council is simple – but it’s far from easy:
“To teach and train parents how to become activated educational activists and parent organizers in all neighborhoods to ensure that their communities are protected against the displacement of students while helping them collaborate with local/statewide organizations and school administration guaranteeing that each student has an equitable and holistic educational experience.”
Shakeda Gaines is president of the Council and explains, “Right now, the Philadelphia Home and School Council has changed even our mission,” said Shakeda Gaines, President.
“It’s more so serving the public. We oversee all of our member Home and School Associations, but our mission now is to make sure that our children are getting a quality education and fighting for those rights,” she said. “Our job is to teach and to train parents on how to be educational activists and parent organizers in all neighborhoods. This is to make sure that our children are protected against displacement.”
To do this effectively, the Council collaborates with local and state organizations and the school administration to make sure that all students “have an equitable and holistic educational experience.”
We asked Gaines to define “displacement”:
“Gentrification, the push out of Black and Brown children, children not being emotionally and mentally cared for and the first thing that is done for them is that they are thrown into schools that don’t work for them or pushed out of their school,” Gaines said.
Whenever educational systems are discussed, there is typically the complaint that parents aren’t actively participating.
Gaines doesn’t see it this way.
“It’s not that parents don’t want to participate. I think we need to take that notion out of people’s minds,” she said.
“It’s just that when you are trying to work two or three jobs to take care of your children, your rent is skyrocketing because in Philadelphia we don’t have a renters block where a landlord can’t go above a certain amount of rent, when you’re still trying to feed your family and still go through your life mentally and emotionally, it’s hard trying to get to a school to volunteer. That’s not to say that it’s not doable but just that it’s hard to do that,” said Gaines.
Understanding this struggle, the goal of the Council is to get parents to donate at least 20 hours a year to their school.
“If you are giving 20 hours a year, you are making an impact. If a school has 400 families, that’s 400 parents out of a school, and you add 20 hours to that school, that can create dramatic changes in the community.”
This goal is actually reached in some schools, but not yet all of them.
“Even if you’re asking for 20 that’s a lot for certain parents because some of them work days and some of them work at night,” she said.
But some parents have adjusted by serving in various ways.
“Some people were good at doing social media, so they work at social media 20 hours a year. Some people were good at making sure that they were on trips, so they did trips 20 hours a year. Some people were good with events, so they came out for 2 or 3 events 20 hours a year so it’s how it’s done, and it can be done. It’s doable and has been done and there are schools out there doing that work.”
You would think that with the wonderful work that Home and School Councils do they would receive as much support as possible from the schools they serve and the education systems they work under – this isn’t always the case.
“They could do more to push, to make sure that Council and, not just Home and Schools themselves, were promoted and cultivated. There have been a significant number of Home and Schools that have been pushed out of their schools,” Gaines said.
“We are going to be honest with this, we have to be,” said Gaines. “Our parents have been told that they had to resolve themselves because Principals don’t like their advocacy and it really depends on the Principal.”
“What I have taught parents were that these are your schools, these are your students, and this is your community. A lot of your principals don’t even live in your communities,” she said.
Parents have a right to have a parent group and a voice, “whether it’s a Home and School or anything else inside school buildings” Gaines said.
“So, you need to continue to fight for that. We should never have to fight for space [in a place] where we pay taxes for, where we send our children because if it weren’t for our children going there, no one would have a job.”
Cierra Freeman is Operations Chair for the Philadelphia Home and School Council and says the Council has been very active on the issue of students returning to school in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“We’ve done a lot of work during the pandemic in partnership with other organizations to make sure that there is racial equity in education in schools as well as calling that school security officers to not be a part of infrastructure of educating children,” Freeman said.
“Philadelphia Home and School Council has shown up a lot specifically around sustenance and food advocacy making sure families are fed during the pandemic.”
Many students who once depended on school lunches to get them through the day no longer had that resource once schools were closed due to the virus. The Council helped get meals in the homes who needed them by working with other groups and organizations to gather and distribute them.
The communities they serve are becoming more aware of the Council’s work and their members are increasingly showing support.
“As times continue to go on, we are getting more support from new and different partners and finding new and different ways to show up for parents,” Freeman said.
And parent engagement?
“I would say that the pandemic, although a very unfortunate situation, has pushed a lot of parents and families to be more involved with their children’s education just by default,” she said.
Parents began to look more closely into the organizations and associations working on the behalf of their children to stay informed and to seek guidance about “what their next steps should be”.
“I would say that I have definitely seen an increase in parental interest in and parental support of the Philadelphia Home and School Council,” said Freeman.
Freeman says that she has noticed a significant increase in the participation of parents in virtual meetings and activities of the Council as it relates to the needs and education of their children.
To find out more about the Philadelphia Home and School Council or to learn how you can get involved, call them 215-400-4080 or visit their website at www.philadelphiahsc.org.
The mission of the Philadelphia Home and School Council