How students and advocates joined forces for clean water

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last year, activists and advocates on the Philadelphia District’s Green Future Healthy Schools committee worked with City Council members, led by Councilwoman Helen Gym, to lobby the District to adopt stricter standards for water access and safety.

Those efforts led to legislation requiring that every school have a minimum number of water fountains based on enrollment and that the District regularly test for lead in the drinking water using a stricter standard than the previous testing.

The District gave each school three modern water fountains called “hydration stations,” which provide cold filtered water.

But although activists and advocates say they’ve accomplished most of their immediate goals, they still have a lot of work to do in organizing students to ensure compliance and expand the existing infrastructure.

One of those groups, the Food Trust, began this work two years ago as part of the Get Hype Philly program, which convenes “youth summits” that bring together students from 70 Philly schools to prioritize issues in their communities.

Aunnalea Grove, program manager of Get Hype Philly for the Food Trust, said one question raised at the summit by Food Trust staff was how much water students were drinking in their schools, with the premise that encouraging water consumption would improve students’ health.

“During that discussion, they said, ‘That’s great, but you should see the water fountains at our schools.’ That’s why students aren’t drinking the water,” Grove said. “The water fountains were broken, some students were worried about lead, others that the water was not appealing to drink, being warm, cloudy, or discolored.

“At the Food Trust, I don’t think we even realized that this was a hindrance. So it was really the young people who brought that issue to our attention.”

The Food Trust took the issue to its Youth Leadership Council. That group is made up of about a dozen high school students from around the city who applied to be council members and were selected by the Food Trust.

“A number of our young people had already been fundraising at their schools to get the hydration stations,” said Aiyana Potts, the Food Trust’s project coordinator for Get Hype Philly. “So when we started talking about this issue, they already knew a lot about who was selling them, how much they cost, and some were already selling reusable bottles in school to raise money.

“They put together this document, which was then used when they went to City Hall to participate in a youth roundtable with City Council members, the mayor and the superintendent,” Potts said. “They also met with City Council members one-on-one to share their personal take, ask questions, and respond to questions. They put a face to the issue.”

While the students were learning the basics of grassroots advocacy, City Council members were taking notes.

Gym, once a teacher in the District, said water safety was already a high priority for her coming into office, but she met with students to get more information.

“The series of town halls on education were critically important in helping shape priorities for the following year’s budget,” Gym said. “We made sure to center student voices in our forums. We don’t create enough spaces where young people can share their school experiences and, more importantly, weigh in on solutions.”

Gym led the charge in City Council, first in lobbying the District to install three hydration stations in every school, and later in formulating two pieces of legislation passed by Council.

“The water hydration stations campaign was a great example of how organized young people — in collaboration with supportive organizations like Youth United for Change and the Food Trust — moved us to action immediately and became a real winning partnership between the city and the District with our young people in the lead,” Gym said. “That’s a model to not only celebrate, but to expand.”

Bills prompt new compliance processes

The first piece of legislation, passed in the summer of 2016, mandates that the District have at least one water fountain for every 100 students, and at least one fountain per floor regardless of the number of students. The legislation was made all the more necessary because the District immediately shut off any water outlets with more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of lead.

“Because we have a mandate for a water fountain on every floor and for every 100 students,” Gym said, “it ensures that we don’t just take fountains out of service and leave schools with less water access.”

But the process to ensure compliance with this mandate is still being designed by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. At the moment, the department will get involved only after a complaint against a specific school. So far it has received no complaints, according to a spokeswoman for L&I.

The department is working with the District to include water fountains in its annual review of the city’s schools, which includes inspections for compliance with fire and property maintenance codes. But that review now takes place during the summer, when many schools have their water turned off.

And if the District is caught violating the legislation, L&I sees its job as simply ensuring that the District complies, not issuing punishments for non-compliance.

“The idea isn’t, ‘oh, this part of the city is going to get massive fines out of the school.’ The idea is compliance,” said Karen Gus, a spokeswoman for L&I. “It’s set up to try and get compliance, as opposed to inflicting some sort of punitive measures.”

The District is able to replace water fountains that have been shut off with “substitute” water sources, such as water coolers, Gus said.

Read about school water lead testing results here.

Gym’s next step was to help push another piece of legislation through Council called the School Water Safety Bill. It mandates that the District retest each outlet every five years and that the District publish the exact lead levels found at each of a school’s outlets no more than 10 days after testing. The bill was signed by the mayor in January 2017.

“I think this has led to much more detailed information and more paying attention to the condition of buildings in our District overall,” Gym said. “This year, the District committed to a bond initiative that will raise over $200 million for the first major school infrastructure investment that we’ve seen in a decade.”

Barriers remain

Nick Ospa of Youth United for Change (YUC), who worked on organizing students to lobby City Council members and testify before the School Reform Commission, expressed pride in students’ achievements but skepticism at how willing he thought the District would be to spend more money on this issue.

He said the earliest obstacle that YUC faced was a culture of distrust among students.

“Students in Philadelphia schools have already built up a callous distrust for their schools and the people who run the District, so a lot of them have already resigned to not having access to water inside their building because it wasn’t a system they trusted anyway,” Ospa said. “We’d like to see students have more of a leadership role in being able to think and provide feedback about things concerning their buildings, even beyond water fountains— I think we would have learned about this situation much earlier.”

However, Ospa said, the District did establish a conduct review meeting years ago — after demand from student activists — in which it invites students from groups such as YUC to provide input on the student code of conduct. He said that YUC students have used the forum to press for a change that would allow students to bring reusable water bottles into all schools to refill at the new hydration stations.

Now, that decision is left up to principals, and it turns out that water bottles are commonly accepted at magnet schools but more often banned at neighborhood schools.

“How about we at least add something to the code of conduct that defines inappropriate personal items as, say, weapons and pornography? So we asked that the definition [in the student code of conduct] explicitly exclude water bottles,” Ospa said. “I thought that was a fairly easy ask, especially as a compromise to something stronger, which is what we were pushing for, but I have not heard anything back from the District since we asked in June.”

He said the initial response in June was disappointing.

“The response we got from the School District is that they do not like to micromanage principals on how they handle personal conduct and discipline,” Ospa said. “Our feeling is that’s simply not good enough, because what happens is that our students in neighborhood schools get treated differently than students at other schools.”

District spokesman Lee Whack confirmed that the District’s policy will not change.

Another issue that students identified after the installation of the hydration stations, Ospa said, is that at larger schools, having only three stations can lead to crowding and long lines. Staff at the Food Trust said the same thing.

Another outstanding issue is the maintenance of the hydration stations. The District purchased a seven-year supply of filters, but they still need to be changed by building engineers when a red light on the station begins flashing.

“Students recognized that, even though the hydration stations were there, they weren’t always being maintained,” Potts said. “Filters weren’t being changed in a timely manner.”

A teacher at Dobbins, who asked not to be identified, reported that, of the school’s three stations, one was closed for construction and another outside the lunchroom simply “does not work.” So although the school technically has its three hydration stations, students are left using just one hydration station on the fifth floor.

“I’ve heard from students that there are a lot of filters with blinking red lights, meaning it’s got to be changed,” Ospa said. “I’ve heard District staff mention that the building staff need to be trained in how to use them. It sounded like they were planning to do a training this summer.”

Training videos, manuals, and specialized tools were distributed to building engineers in late September, according to the District’s Office of Communications. The process for changing filters was completed on Oct. 9.

The Food Trust plans to reconvene students to plan a third year of water advocacy. Whether Youth United for Change chooses to continue its advocacy on water access will be determined later this fall, when the students decide on their annual priorities.

Regardless, Ospa said the process of working on the campaign — lobbying local politicians, writing speeches, and testifying before public bodies like City Council and the School Reform Commission — left students with valuable skills, both as professionals and citizens.

“There are a lot of concrete working skills like public speaking, speechwriting, articulating your thoughts, strategizing as a team. But I think there are other skills that are just as meaningful to students’ experiences, like understanding the democratic process, learning how change works in a democracy and how to bring in members of your community to come up with a message that is compelling and understandable,” Ospa said. “Those two sets of skills aren’t separate in a vacuum — they kind of feed off each other. This critical thinking about systems and structures in our democracy also feeds into their experience as students.”

Staff at the Food Trust sounded the same note.

“Our students said, ‘I don’t even know grown-ups who do this! I didn’t know that I could just schedule a meeting with my Council person,’ and ‘I didn’t know that I could call the SRC and ask to be on the agenda to testify,’” said Grove, the program manager. “They were very nervous before they went into those meetings and they came out saying, ‘City Council people are people too, and we can talk to them and have a voice in the issues that we think are important.’

“Many of them said there are other issues they care about and that they wanted to do this work for those things as well.”