On Tuesday, April 19, Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, and I (Laurie Mazer) were texting with each other when she shared an email that had just hit her inbox.

It was an invitation for the Philadelphia Home and School Council to join a Facilities Planning Process Information meeting, which was to take place in three days. We could only assume this was an attempt at “community engagement” by the School District, since the meeting invite was directed at “Community Based Organizations” and arrived ahead of a lackluster schedule of “community conversations” that had already been scheduled without asking for guidance from those on the front lines with communities.

Who was included in this meeting? Why wasn’t the meeting public? Why was there no mention of the meeting on the Facilities Planning Process website? Why did Parents United for Public Education, the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative coalition, Our City Our Schools, and other organizations — who, along with Philadelphia Home and School Council, had pushed for and demanded this facilities planning process — not receive invitations?

What we’ve seen

Our collective demands on fixing crumbling, toxic school buildings have always centered on true community engagement, where there’s real listening, knowledge sharing and dialogue sessions for parents, students, staff and community members. We have been demanding that the District engage in an open, inclusive review of all school building issues, as well as develop a plan to address them. We don’t want anymore of the District’s “whack-a-mole” approach, where whoever screams the loudest gets the resources, because this deepens inequities and divisions across our city. The School District to date, has experimented with quite a few engagement methods with spotty success. The Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR ) process, which this Facilities Planning Process is the new version of, was widely critiqued and had a piecemeal regionalized setup, with public participation coming from a few representatives from various City Council districts hand-picked by principals. Only those selected could attend the meetings, and meeting minutes were not taken or made available. After these exclusive meetings there was a single, large, open to the public, regional gathering with smaller break-outs by school, a confusing process that was cut short by COVID. (We are grateful for the short-lived process.)

Starting with engagement that is not inclusive made us take notice: Talking at parents, staff, students and community members rather than listening to us. It was business as usual for the District and we had to issue a resounding “Hell no!” in response. The time is right to be perfectly clear and to publicly let the District, the Board of Education, and our outgoing and new Superintendent know that we are no longer allowing fake engagement to pass muster. The health and safety of our students, staff and teachers is far too important for us to go along with being tokenized instead of engaged with, and to have a real and productive process that centers those most affected by the deteriorating conditions of our school buildings.

We know the challenges of engagement, and have been able to overcome many of them as we continue learning. Philadelphia Home and School Council held a wildlysuccessful citywide parent meeting in early fall of 2021, in partnership with CM (Kendra) Brooks, CM (Helen) Gym and state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, with over 200 parents attending.

Parents United and Philly Healthy Schools Coalition held meetings on what safe reopening would look like in July of 2020 and to hear concerns about reopening schools in February of 2021, with hundreds of parents and community members attending because there was no information provided by the School District. Our City Our Schools hosted a listening session on the Superintendent Search in collaboration with the Board of Education, which had robust attendance and modeled best practices for community meetings. We have also engaged over 100 people and will continue to engage with them over the summer, in our monthly Community Conversations on redesigning our School Board,which centered school communities as being the most important part of designing the conversations as well as the data collection methods in the hopes of reimagining a more transparent, accountable and representative school board.

What we learned

By offering space for people to share what is or isn’t working with our own engagement we have identified some strategies worth sharing. Together we set clear goals and shared intentions for the meetings. We made all information accessible and shared tools to measure shared understanding. There were facilitated small break out rooms in hopes to uplift as many voices and perspectives as possible. Notes were taken and shared out afterwards to the entire attending community, because we believe in transparency. Many of these meetings were on Facebook live and remain archived for all to see and interact with today. We have sought to provide small locations where communities can gather in-person if comfortable. These in-person events were available during the day, in the evening, and on weekends to allow access for all working parents and caregivers. We found that rec centers are ideal for this purpose because they are community hubs where childcare, food and community are easily accessible and can be used to provide safe space where the community can create a plan of action — all key components that drive participation. Partnerships with our neighborhoods and affinity groups provided in-roads to parent communities that have been marginalized and ignored historically.

When the city has taken the time to truly engage the community, it has brought wonderful results, like the process that HACE and JustAct were able to use to create a community driven design process for the Rivera and Mann Centers with the Rebuild Program. The Superintendent Search had listening sessions throughout the city and hosted by a variety of community organizations, along with an open ended survey to collect feedback and open forum town halls which seemed to be an improvement from past processes. However, it seems like we are once again reinventing the wheel with the Facilities Planning Process, starting a totally different type of community engagement while paying millions to consultants to organize it. We hope that WXY Studio, the New York based architectural firm contracted in February to “lead the extensive community engagement effort” takes note of our past experiences and wins and from their own learnings from facilitating similar processes in Queens, but the true first step has been missed.

As community-based organizers, we know that real engagement can happen. We’ve done it and continue to do it even if we disagree with the logic of others in the room. We understand that their voice matters and we are not the all and knowing. Collectively we must create change, that is the only way all our children will be successful

Engagement strategies work, by asking people how they would like to be engaged and involved, beforeyou release your plans. It doesn’t look like; “Please continue to visit this website for more information about community engagement sessions and how to give your feedback.

Our money, wasted time, the demand:

Though the district has committed to “partnering with families and school communities throughout this process” and to “solicit feedback from schools communities,” having a single set of Community Conversations to learn more about the FPP, a high level overview of the data, and an unspecified amount of time and space to share priorities on the District’s decision-making is not enough, and jumping the gun. School communities need to share their insights about how to engage school community members in this process. The School District of Philadelphia and their consultants must start by asking the public what they do and don’t want the Facilities Planning Process to look like and what role they’d like to play in it.

The District has already earmarked millions for “public engagement” for the Facilities Planning Process and have yet to ask community groups such as ours, who know how to engage families to become partners for free. Saving our communities millions of dollars that could be reinvested in our schools that have been seriously disinvested in.

So we are saying it plainly: this will NOT be another fake attempt at engagement! The process must start with asking the public “how” to engage families and communities, no more secret meetings, and a schedule of identical on-line meetings that start during the time where parents, caregivers, and staff are at work, No more “community conversations” without asking us what information we need to make those meetings meaningful. No more claims to engagement but only giving us tools that clearly shows what we already know.

Our schools need a lot of facilities repairs and our enrollment is suffering because of lack of investment and care. The promise that over 13 months our schools will be “evaluated” and we “may” get to engage in “facilitated conversations” is far too vague for a process we know may recommend closing of some of our beloved neighborhood schools.

We are being absolutely clear that the way in which school communities are engaged now will determine how the “recommendations” in 2023 will be received. We demand that the SDP makes a change from the tired, failed past policies of engagement!

Talk with us now, rather than continue in this chaos of disenfranchised communities fighting against what we know is to come; School closures! Our city cannot handle anymore pain, stress, or disinvestment. of . Working with communities deeply early-on, is a way to minimize the number of school closures, ensure that our youth are blooming and thriving, re-engages stakeholders, and prevent more disruptions that have already destabilized our city. It is not too late to start on this path and to change the narrative from “How do we manage with less enrollment and less funding?” to “How can we grow our school communities and provide safe space and learning opportunities for all?” We are eager to walk the walk with you but unwilling to just sit back and listen to more “talk” We’ve heard enough! Let our communities back in our schools!

Gaines is President Philadelphia Home and School Council and Mazer is a member of Parents United for Public Education.

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