Two new school board members took their places at the Philadelphia School District table Thursday night, promising to center the voices of 114,000 students.
Sophia Roach, a senior at Philadelphia High School of Creative and Performing Arts, and Love Speech, a senior at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts, will serve as the school board’s student representatives for the 2022-23 school year.
Student representatives do not have voting rights, but they participate in all board discussions and gather information from their peers across the city. last year’s board representatives helped choose a new superintendent.
Roach, a creative writing student at CAPA, is a founding member of the school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee and editor of the Bullhorn, the citywide student newspaper. She works as an intern at the Mütter Museum studying the effects of gun violence on young people in Philadelphia, and CAPA director Joanne Beaver said she was “a thought partner for me as a director.”
“Sophia is a thoughtful observer of the social environment around her,” Beaver said. “She makes sure that what’s right is always at the forefront of what we do.”
Speech, a gifted artist, participates in a college-career bridging program that gives her visibility in the workplace. She is also taking all of her senior year classes at Community College of Philadelphia.
Patricia McDermott, director of KCAPA, said Speech had “a strong moral compass and a drive to help others. She is thoughtful in her words and actions and often helps other students in her classes in a way that is both supportive and extremely kind.
Mayor Jim Kenney hailed the new student representatives – the fifth pair of students to hold the position.
When the city returned the district to local control in 2018, Kenney said the goal was to hold him and others accountable for the district’s performance.
“Our student council representatives play a critical role in this process,” the mayor said.
Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. interviewed Roach, Speech and three other finalists for the position, chosen from 21 qualified applicants from district and charter schools.
“I know they’re very passionate and dedicated people,” Watlington said. “Actually, I feel like they are endowed with tenacity.”
Roach told the council she was driven by a desire to represent students “who deserve to be truly heard and not just seen through demographics and standardized test scores.”
Speech said she wants to “stand up for all students and give them the best chance possible to succeed and enjoy their educational experience.”
The board also heard from Watlington and members of his cabinet at the start of the school year.
Reggie McNeil, chief operating officer, said each of the district’s thousands of classrooms was cleaned and ready for the 2022-23 year, which began Aug. 29. He also said the district has made progress on the garbage collection issues that plagued him last year. .
And while he doesn’t know about last year’s transportation problems, the on-time arrival rate still lags: 71% of school buses get kids to class on time.
Asked about the on-time target, McNeil said that while 100% would be ideal, the district is aiming for 80%, given that “we deal with calls, we have to deal with accidents that happen in the city.”
Larisa Shambaugh, district talent director, said the year started with 98% of teaching positions filled. The district has more work to do in other non-educational categories: 92% of nursing positions filled, 71% of bus drivers, 69% of construction engineers, 88% of general cleaners, 82% of staff catering, 80% of special education assistants and 76% of student climate staff.
Special education assistants are paid $22,735 per year (compared to $15,000). Board member Cecelia Thompson wondered if this was enough to attract candidates for this difficult and crucial position.
“Is that a living wage for an adult for the amount of work these special education assistants do?” Thompson asked. School board president Joyce Wilkerson said the district wants to pay a living wage and said it’s a matter of collective bargaining.
Several speakers referred to leveling, the district’s practice of moving teachers weeks after the school year begins to reflect changes in enrollment. (The school system renamed it this year, calling it “enrollment-focused resource review.”)
The district delayed leveling last year as students returned to in-person instruction after an all-virtual year for the vast majority of the school system, but it cost millions. Officials said they could not afford to completely eliminate grading, a practice that suburban and better-funded school systems do not engage in.
But Gwendolyn Roth, a seventh grader at Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties, said the leveling was unacceptable, period. Kearny lost many teachers to leveling during her years at school, she said.
“There aren’t many teachers who teach the same grade two years in a row because someone got leveled and had to replace them,” Roth told the board. “Basically, when a teacher is leveled, the first six weeks of the year are lost in terms of class time, and there are disruptions in our schedule, like lunch and specials.”
Mother Caroline Thorn said the leveling, which is due to start next week, “isn’t fair. There is no good time to do it, but right now it would be very damaging.