PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — This morning, during KYW's hour-long “Fixing the Schools” forum, school leaders heard honest concerns from a recently graduated Philadelphia student about her anxiety over safety in schools.
Charity Robbins is a current freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who attended Frankford High and then Carver High School of Engineering and Science. She sat in at the forum, discussing things like the merits of school vouchers, conditions of Philadelphia school buildings, and anxiety she endured from the routine lockdowns, as well as daily fears of neighborhood gun violence.
'I was scared going to school'
"Every morning, I was scared going to school,” she said. “I was scared that I would get shot going to the bus — and I'm not, like, even being dramatic. I went to school in North Philly and these were very real concerns."
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said his members shared the same concerns.
"Many of the things that happen outside of schools spill over into our schools," he noted.
Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington said the district was expanding its Safe Paths program, which pays community groups to monitor students' routes to school. It's at 22 schools this year but Watlington said the true solution involves the city, police and philanthropic partners.
"We absolutely must win this war on gun violence in our city," Watlington said.
Watlington says upgrading school security cameras and expanding safety zones with extra police aren't enough without a true community effort to curb violence and the anxiety it causes.
Robbins said a teacher noticed her struggle with mental health and told her it was okay to talk with a counselor. Christopher Dormer, superintendent of the Norristown Area School District, said two-thirds of its reports on the state attorney general's "Safe 2 Say" violence hotline dealt with depression, anxiety, and reports of self-harm.
"This is a growing issue,” Dormer explained. “It's not going to go away anytime soon, and it's probably one of the more underfunded areas in schools and across the Commonwealth."
Dormer said addressing mental health begins with the relationship between the student and a trusted staff member.
But concerns don’t just end with violence, mental health and lockdowns.
Philadelphia parent Shereda Cromwell painted a stark picture when describing how she prepares her sons to go to Philly schools.
"As a parent, I have to show my sons pictures of asbestos and say, 'If you see this in your school building, take a picture, let me know, and also stay away from it."
Watlington said a project team will be at work this school year to draw up a facilities master plan.
Evening the playing field
Robbins said she would have considered a voucher to go to private school because she and other public school graduates sometimes struggle to catch up in their college classes.
"We're not on an even playing field,” she said. “They had more access to money, they had more unique classes. They're prepared for these introductory college-level courses."
But her public school education, she said, exposed her to a variety of people from different backgrounds and made her a better person.
At our “Fixing our Schools” forum, Boys’ Latin Charter School founder and interim Girard College President David Hardy said giving public money for private school tuition would help.
"100% for vouchers,” he said, “let me tell you why.”
“If you have a child in second grade this year and they're in a school that doesn't work for them, you don't have three or four years to wait for that school to get better."
Watlington said the question is, do you devote public money to private schools when that money could be used to improve the course offerings at public schools?
"I think what president Hardy mentioned relative to the rigor that's available — or not available in too many public schools — is a serious problem."