A Word on Hellholes

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CFM & POD with letter & chocolatesAs I got in the car yesterday to begin a very long drive home from Pike County, I learned of a letter Sen. Vincent Hughes had sent requesting that I apologize for using the term “hellholes” to describe Pennsylvania public schools in which there is a violent incident every 17 minutes, and for noting that students whose schools fail them are likely to end up in jail and/or on welfare. I’m told Sen. Hughes voiced similar sentiments on the Senate floor and on Twitter.

It was appropriate that this occurred on December 7th, because that happens to be the birthday of my late grandfather and namesake, Charles F. Mitchell, Sr., or as I called him, Pa. December 7th was an important date in that South Philadelphia boy’s life for another reason: Because of what happened on December 7, 1941, he ended up defending our country as part of what was then called the Army Air Force. Pa taught me that when a situation is terrible—as our nation’s was on Pearl Harbor Day—you call the situation what it is and respond accordingly. That’s what he did during the geopolitical crisis of World War II, and that’s what I did when I was apprised of the data on the educational crisis in Pennsylvania cities like the one in which Pa grew up.

Folks didn’t always like Pa’s way, and obviously Sen. Hughes didn’t like mine yesterday. I hope he’ll change his mind after reading my response, which shows that I actually borrowed the word “hellhole” from a student who was rescued from one of our violent, failing schools and that based on Sen. Hughes’ website, we actually have rather similar views on what happens to kids who don’t get a good education.

My colleague Pearre Dean and I hand delivered that response to the Senator’s office today, along with a box of our colleague Amy Grimm’s famous homemade chocolate candies for his staff. Here it is, with links to supporting documentation:

Dear Sen. Hughes:

Thank you for your letter of December 7. As a graduate of Pennsylvania’s public schools, I sincerely appreciate your interest in improving them, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter with you, and it seems to me we disagree a lot less than you think.

Specifically, your letter asks me to apologize to students, teachers, and employees for using the term “hellholes” to describe schools in which a violent incident occurs every 17 minutes. To be honest, Senator, I borrowed that term from a student named Anthony Herbert who escaped from one of those schools. Here is what Anthony told us:

Walking through the hallway for the first time, I really felt sorry for myself because, man, I got stuck in this hellhole.

I’m walking through the hallways, trash cans and barrels are on fire, people are fighting and yelling, and there was really no order around. And it was just crazy. Teachers are telling students, “Get in the class, get in the class!” and she was completely ignored. The respect level was below zero. Security guards are grabbing people, throwing them in classrooms. Classrooms behind bars, which was really extraordinary.

With all due respect, Senator, I find it hard to disagree with Anthony’s choice of words. Moreover, I did not use his term to attack students or any other people who are trying to make the best of schools like the one he described. I used it to convince the adults who preside over the system in which those students are trapped, namely you and your colleagues, that it’s time we tried something different. The solutions of the last decade—more time and much more money—have clearly failed when a violent incident occurs every 17 minutes and less than 40 percent of students are proficient in math and reading.

Your letter also indicates I had said the “only purpose” of the schools under discussion “was to prepare students ‘for future jail stays and welfare.'” I did not say that, and what I did say is quite similar to text on your own website. A page I’ve enclosed from SenatorHughes.com says that students who don’t succeed in school are likely to go on welfare and/or to jail. I agree with you: Our public schools are supposed to help students lead productive, independent lives, and when they don’t succeed, it’s terribly costly not just to them, but to taxpayers statewide.

Again, Senator, thank you for allowing me to explain further the Commonwealth Foundation’s suggestions to bring about dramatic improvement in schools in which a violent incident occurs every 17 minutes. At this point, it would be premature for me to apologize to the students in these schools. So far, I have merely told the truth about the system to which our current laws condemn them. But I will owe them an apology if my colleagues and I are unsuccessful in convincing yours to throw them a long-overdue lifeline.

I would welcome the opportunity to continue this conversation with you in person or by phone.

Sincerely yours,

Charles F. Mitchell
Vice President & COO

It’s unfortunate that Sen. Hughes found my language to be offensive. But as my late grandfather would have pointed out, what’s really offensive is the reality students confront every day in Pennsylvania’s violent, failing schools—an act of violence every 17 minutes. Please ask your legislator today to respond to those facts with sound policy that will save lives and save money.