PHILADELPHIA— Each morning just before school, Dawn Hawkins and her 13-year-old son Khyrie hold hands, close their eyes and bow their heads.
“Be a shield of protection for my baby,” Hawkins prays over the lanky 8th grader.
Then it’s off to his new school: a 15 minute walk through Strawberry Mansion, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, in the most murderous section of the city. The school is a little less than a mile from home. But it could well be foreign territory.
Until September, Khyrie’s daily journey didn’t require a call for divine intervention. But he is one of 9,000 Philadelphia public school students taking new and often more dangerous routes to school this year. The district shuttered 23 schools over the summer, plunging an already beleaguered system into further disorder. These students, many of them elementary-school age and almost all of them black, have been scattered across 50 schools, often in unfamiliar or unwelcoming neighborhoods. Some must take longer walks to school, crossing dangerous intersections and neighborhoods. Deep budget cuts has meant fewer crossing guards.What’s happening in Philadelphia is happening across the country. In major cities including Chicago, Detroit, New York and Oakland, mass school closings have affected thousands of black and Latino students. Opponents describe the closures as a steep blow to a generation of minority students already struggling with social and economic instability. The school closures and their unintended consequences have sparked protests among parents, students, and advocates who say the school board targeted minority students and low income communities.
“You have poor kids all over the country but the mass closures are disproportionately affecting children of color,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Instead of fixing a school and making public schools the center of a community where parents want to send their kids, you’re hurting communities, you’re hurting schools and you are sending kids outside of their neighborhood to places that in the long run, frankly, are no better than the places they left.”
Weingarten said the mass closure model is an “abdication of responsibility” by school leaders that sends a chilling message: “The schools are dead and the neighborhoods are dead.”
In Philadelphia, more than 80% of the students affected by the closures are black, though they make up just 58% of the public school population. Four percent of the affected students in Philadelphia are white.
The majority of the closings were in North and West Philadelphia in high-poverty neighborhoods where African-American students like Khyrie were disproportionately affected. Roughly 93% of them come from poor families, according to the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, a national coalition of student advocates and organizers.
“I think part of what we are seeing is the targeting of African-American and Latino communities. That’s not hypothetical, that’s fact,” said Pastor Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church, who has rallied against the closures. “My parishioners are coming to me saying, ‘my child has to walk longer distances and through dangerous neighborhoods just to get to school.’ Or, ‘I have to get to work late because now I have to drive my child to school because I fear for their safety.’”
The school board’s decision to close the schools— deemed underutilized, underperforming and by most accounts under-resourced— was a cost-saving measure in response to the district’s $304 million shortfall. But even with the closures, the city had to borrow $50 million to help schools open on time and to provide the bare minimum needed to operate the schools.With shuttered schools came nearly 4,000 layoffs. Most city schools don’t have counselors, librarians or full-time nurses. Hall monitors, often the first to break up fights and maintain order, were among those laid off. Classroom sizes in some cases have bloated to 40 or more students, without enough desks for every student. Resources such as paper, pencils and textbooks are in such short supply that Mayor Michael Nutter has made a public plea for donations.
Compounding the school district’s funding and staff woes is a battle between state Democrats and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett who has cut nearly $1 billion from the state’s education budget. More than month and a half into the new school year, Philadelphia teachers are working under an expired contract.
“It goes beyond education,” said Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth advocacy group. “It speaks to what kind of Philadelphia we want, one where the city is still a place where people are able to live and raise their families–or not.”
Last month, 12-year-old Laporshia Massey fell ill at her Philadelphia elementary school and later died after suffering an asthma attack. The school has a single nurse on duty twice a week. The day that she died was not one of those days.
“We’ll never know if having a school nurse on site could have spared Laporshia’s life, but we do know that school nurses are trained to detect symptoms of asthma attacks,” Weingarten wrote in an open letter to Corbett.
Dawn Hawkins, Khyrie’s mom, said she simply wants a safe, sufficiently-funded public school in her neighborhood.
Leslie P. Hill Elementary, where Khyrie had gone since 1st grade and would have attended this year, was around the corner from home, tucked inside of Strawberry Mansion High School. For years, Strawberry Mansion ranked among the most dangerous high schools in the state. But it also served as a neighborhood anchor and point of pride for generations of residents who attended the school.
For Hawkins, her son’s longer trek to a new school makes her more anxious than his life at the old one.
Their neighborhood has been shattered by gun violence. The number of incidents has decreased in recent years. But neighbors and police say rival groups continue to trade blood and bullets along the neighborhood’s main corridors and down smaller side streets.
Just getting to and from school each day, Khyrie walks among invisible boundaries, tip-toeing around neighborhood grudges and older boys who may be part of the violence.
During the second week of school, a 12-year-old boy was sexually assaulted on the way to Morton McMichael Elementary. Police said that at about 8:25 a.m. on Sept. 16 the younger boy was approached by a stranger and pulled into an alley where he was attacked. The boy then ran to school and told staff that he was assaulted by an older boy, maybe 13 or 14 years old. No arrests have been made in the case, police said.
The incident, while isolated, heightened fears among parents.
“Worrying is an everyday thing,” Hawkins said. “You’d think they could go to school and have a little safe haven. Now, I just don’t know.”
City leaders have tried to allay parent concerns with a program called Walk Safe, which places volunteers in brightly colored vests along 34 so-called “safe routes” to and from elementary and middle schools.
Anthony Murphy, executive director of Town Watch Integrated Services, the city agency implementing the program, said relying on volunteers to man the routes has been somewhat difficult, but that each of the routes has been sufficiently staffed.
“We have challenges and that’s without saying, but for the first month I can say we have had no issues,” Murphy said.
But the community isn’t sitting back.
Hawkins has become part of a growing movement of parents and activists fighting further cuts in education and demanding that state lawmakers develop a consistent funding formula for city schools. She has joined Action United, a statewide organization that advocates on behalf of low-income families. She attends every rally and school board meeting.
“The big point here is that in these low income communities it’s important that the schools get the resources that they need,” said Kia Hinton, a mother of three public school students and co-chair of Action United’s education committee. “These students are not getting the resources that other students in other areas are receiving. And a lot of what’s impeding their learning has to do with societal issues like poverty, people not having jobs, violence, all of those things.”
At 13, Khyrie knows how treacherous these streets can be. Gunfire this summer in a neighborhood park left one man dead and others wounded.
About six months earlier, a 24-year-old relative was shot and killed. His body was found under a rusting old overpass. Khyrie wears the young man’s memory on his backpack in red ink: “Rest In Peace, Tony.”
“Basically, it’s like people just don’t care,” said Khyrie, a tall and slender, soft-spoken boy. “People have issues and they just want to take it out on other people.”
On the first day of school last month, Khyrie stood on the corner of his block watching for a moment as the neighborhood came alive with working folks and school children spilling from row homes and the narrow side streets that line the block.
Just before 8 a.m., Khyrie and his mother left home. As they approached his new school, the din of school yard chatter grew louder. Khyrie rushed ahead of his mother and into a circle of waiting friends.
Hawkins called out that she loved the boy and wished him a great first day. Khyrie turned to his mother and smiled shyly.
“We need to educate these parents on what’s really going on,” she said, turning to a group of parents and asking them to sign a petition calling for better school funding. “We can’t just drop our kids off at school and hope that everything works itself out.”