The Girard Academic Music Program – GAMP – in South Philadelphia is facing a threat to its transportation services, which could cause a cascading series of detrimental effects on students, teachers and the manner in which the magnet school delivers many of its services and programs.
The School District of Philadelphia has notified GAMP, a prestigious 5-12 school for aspiring musicians, that it will cease to provide bus service for the school at 2136 Ritner St. for the 2013-2014 school year. This is a major problem for GAMP, since more than 60 percent of its 500-plus students use the bus service.
GAMP last week hosted a “Save Our School Buses Rally and Concert” to drum up support and spread awareness of the issue.
“Currently, 173 of 262 middle school students ride district buses from 30 different zip codes across the city to and from the school. The school has been informed that many of these students cannot return to GAMP next year if transportation is not provided,” said GAMP founder and principal Jack Carr via a statement released by the school. “Without the district buses, the logistics of a long commute that requires multiple bus transfers is dangerous for 10-and-11-year-old students, who are carrying musical instruments along with their backpacks.
“The loss of school buses will have a huge impact,” Carr continued. “GAMP is at great risk of losing the strongest, most talented student musicians from throughout Philadelphia.”
GAMP serves a diverse student body, including 27.7 percent African Americans, and 47.2 percent of its students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” Academically, GAMP is considered one of the best schools in the city, as its students in grades 5 through 11 have scored more than a 90 percent average on both the math and reading portions of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams. In fact, for the past three years, GAMP seventh-graders have scored a perfect 100 on the math portion of the PSSAs.
Carr further explained GAMP’s situation, and the effect this action will have on its students, noting that the officials with the district told him and alarmed parents to seek answers from the state, since it controls district purse strings.
“I anticipate it will drastically change the complexion of the middle school students who attend here,” Carr said, noting that the district actually wanted to kill GAMP’s bus service for the current year, but he was able to convince the School Reform Commission last spring to keep the service for one more year. “There will be much less students to pick from. The ironic thing is that suburban people apply all the time, and have the means to drive down here and pay the tuition. That means valuable spots could go to the suburbs and not to the kids in the city that need them.”
For Carr, a very real worry is that his students – some of whom are very small when they enter as fifth-graders and carry expensive musical instruments – will encounter crime if they need to take SEPTA next year, and he questioned why the district would want to target a school that is doing phenomenal work.
“I realize the school district has to make cuts, and everyone understands the money is just not there, but I don’t know if you mess with something that has been a golden example,” said Carr, who founded GAMP in 1974. “We’re not the only ones, but not every school is having their buses cut. The district has said it has done all it could, and they told me and the parents that the next step in the process should be for us to get money from the folks who won’t give it to them.”
Getting money from the state will prove just as daunting as acquiring funds from the city. Gov. Tom Corbett has slashed public education in this year’s budget, and City Council has yet to come to an agreement on the controversial Actual Value Initiative, a property tax reform that would pump upward of $74 million back into the district.
School District General Manager of Student Transportation Services Francisco DuPrey confirmed that GAMP students will be issued TransPasses next year, but said the district “is very sensitive” to the issue.
“Bus service is not being terminated to the school. The mode of transportation is changing, and that mode of transportation will largely consist of moving students from the yellow buses to TransPasses,” DuPrey said, noting that the court order mandating district-provided transportation ended in 2009. “We do know that these students are carrying equipment. But this is an opportunity for children to learn living skills, because sooner or later, they’ll need to learn how to use the public school system.”
DuPrey said that there are 65,000 other students who use SEPTA, and that if confronted, they shouldn’t put up a fight. Middle Years Alternative (MYA), at 4725 Fairmount Ave. is switching from yellow buses to using TransPasses next year, while AMY James Martin, 3380 Richmond St., has its middle-grade students using SEPTA now, and will make a full switch to TransPasses next year. The district confirmed it will still provide yellow bus transportation for students with special needs.
“We suggest that one of the things parents can do is teach students, just like when they’re carrying other valuables or even walking in the city, that if they were asked to turn it over, treat it the same way as they would a cell phone,” DuPrey said. “It’s not worth getting into a confrontation over, but this is something they may encounter later in life.”
It’s this sort of talk from district officials that has outraged many, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, who, on a blog post on PFT’s Web site, blasted the district’s decision to pull buses from GAMP, and claimed the district is putting cost-cutting measures above all else – including that of the safety of students attending one of the top performing schools in the city.
“The plans to eliminate bus service to GAMP would destroy one of Philadelphia’s best public schools. GAMP has a well-earned reputation as a premier magnet school, known as much for the diversity of its student body as it is for its stellar music and academic programs,” Jordan said. “The single-minded focus on saving money has done nothing but hurt our neighborhood schools and students. Certainly this is now what Judge Doris Smith intended when she dissolved the desegregation court order with the school district.
“Given their so-called focus on creating high-performing seats, the School Reform Commission’s willingness to jeopardize the future of one of our best public schools is as puzzling as it is disturbing,” Jordan continued. “And where is the equity? If GAMP were a charter school, the school district would have to pay for the busing, regardless of cost. The entire SRC strategy thus far has been predicated on taking staff, programs, resources and support away from public schools…this is not only affecting high-poverty, low-performing schools, but eroding the quality of celebrated institutions like GAMP.”