By Alli Hartley
Yesterday, we took a tour of Overbrook High School and observed the High Step Enrichment program after school, but today was our first day “in the trenches”—we assisted in classrooms and began running our Project Based Learning activity in the afterschool program. For our project, we are facilitating the creation of a short film about what life is like in Philadelphia public schools, and what the students want to see changed about their learning environments.
As a museum educator, I was really interested in the wide range of teaching styles we observed today. Classroom management in particular seems to be a real problem at Overbrook; there are only three security guards in the entire school, and many students who are either late to class or cut class just roam through the halls. Because of budget cuts, there just isn’t enough staff that they can devote to preventing cuts or preventing disturbances during class time, and that’s really frustrating to observe. We also observed teachers today who had literally mentally checked out, and who seemed so broken by the school system that they only gave out busywork or textbook work instead of actually teaching. Since most of the textbooks were written in the 1990s and were probably on middle-school levels (even in 12th grade classes), this was particularly dismaying, but because the school lacks administrative personnel due to budget cuts, there is very little teacher evaluation. Luckily, we also observed other teachers who were really inspiring and seemed to be really engaging with students. High school, I think, is particularly rough—at this point these teachers get these kids, they have had eight to eleven years of failing schools, and it’s unrealistic to expect one year of good teaching to reverse everything else these students have going against their success. There were some really great teachers at Overbrook, and I think they made a world of difference.
We’ve noticed that these kids are really hurting for some kind of arts programs, and as a museum educator, this is really affecting me. I understand that many of the educational nonprofits who work in this district only have enough resources to concentrate on academic subjects such as reading and writing, and obviously it’s important that these students learn core subjects. But I think if they had more arts, music or even just nonacademic classes such as woodshop or dance, they would have not only a positive outlet for their anger and their incredible creativity, but a reason to engage. They would have a reason to want to come to school each day. I believe cultural institutions such as museums and archives can only be relevant as long as we have an educational mission. This trip has made me aware of what programs the public schools are lacking, and has given me some ideas on how some of the museums I’m affiliated with in D.C. can share our incredible cultural wealth.
We heard some incredibly eye-opening things today. Statistically, many of us know that it’s more likely that the students we met today will end up in prison rather than in college, but to hear a student say, “Our governor is spending more money on prisons than our schools because he knows we’ll end up there anyways” placed a face, a dejected voice, to the situation as never before. But at the same time, when asked “Why should Overbrook stay open?”, the students were able to speak more eloquently than ever about the school’s rich history, their personal familial connections to the school, the sense of pride the school once had, and what the cost would be to the district if the school was closed. At the same time, we were able to start moving the students today towards the ability to advocate for their own school, and to use their collective power and voice. There was so much we had to celebrate today—and celebrate we did, with an amazing UMD service-learning alum. As a group, we have grown incredibly close since Sunday morning, and I can’t wait to see how our students will surprise us with their finished project.