Gazing down the crowded and bustling city streets of Philadelphia, Joy Herbert watched as her son Anthony joined her to talk about a disturbing past and present in hopes of finding a brighter future.
When the family moved to West Philadelphia from the Bronx, N.Y., Anthony, a ninth grader, was an engaged, ‘A’ student and far from being in any kind of trouble. But after dealing with the constant reality of violence in his West Philadelphia High School, where he was mugged twice and had his property stolen, he was recently forced to drop out. He is not alone.
According to the Pa. Department of Education statistics, only 68 percent his schoolmates will manage to graduate. Moreover, even if they do, it will be from one of the worst academically performing schools in the state, with only 9.2 percent of its students able to reach proficiency in reading and math.
But to make things worse for students trapped in this failing school due only to the digits in their zip code, it is also one of the most violent, a factor that has left Herbert exasperated and praying for a legislative solution.
In just one day at WPHS, which has changed principals four times in the last year, there were 11 arrests, said Herbert. Other days, barrels in the hallways were set on fire with fights and thefts just a regular part of life there. Sadly, the school is far from an anomaly.
In fact, of the 144 most failing schools in Pennsylvania, in which none scored more than 53 percent proficiency in math and science, students endured more than 5,400 acts of violence in the most recently released PDE report. This included seven rapes, more than 1,900 assaults on students, more than 1,000 assaults on staff, 163 robberies, 31 terroristic threats and two riots.
Herbert admits that despite the daunting statistics, parents need to be involved. She has heard loudly and clearly the message of personal responsibility coming from pundits and parents well outside the realities of Philadelphia and decided to act. Sadly, she found that no matter how much she did, the school was still not held accountable and never improved.
“The illusion of voice is there, but it’s not real,” said Herbert who spent countless hours actively engaged as a vice-chairman of the West Philadelphia School Advisory Council. “I found that out painfully over the last year as I volunteered my time and energy and yet my son is still a drop out.”
Months after Anthony left and despite constant attempts from Joy to engage his teachers or administrators, she has yet to hear from any school officials on his dropping out.
Just a few blocks down the street at University City High School, a stone’s throw away from Ivy League powerhouse University High School, the story was even worse. Ranking as dead last in academic performance with only 4.9 percent of its student proficient, UCHS was already in the eighth year of corrective action under the Adequate Yearly Progress program as federally mandated through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
So without true school accountability or economic ability to remove her son from a dangerous and academically failing school, Herbert sees school choice as the only way out.
“These children we are pushing aside right now are going to be the ones you ask in 50 years to find your medication when you can’t and they aren’t going to be able to read to find it. ,” said a teary-eyed Herbert, the pain of the reality written across her face. “Without a school choice voucher program, my family and other families in this area have no hope.”
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The Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org) is Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.