Parents’ campaign: ‘We Love Our Philly Public Schools’

They say that ratings websites are misleading and that it's best to talk to a parent about a school.

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

A group of public school parents from Northwest Philadelphia has put together a campaign to support neighborhood public schools. They hope to spread the We Love Our Philly Public Schools campaign to every neighborhood in the city.

The kickoff event, with its open house format, will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30, at Lovett Library, 6945 Germantown Ave.

The parents have designed yard signs, bumper-magnets, and posters showing love for Philly’s public schools. They are meant to be conversation-starters — opportunities for public school parents to talk to other parents and share their experiences with their children’s schools.

Kathleen Butts, one of the parent organizers, has a daughter in 8th grade at C.W. Henry Elementary. She was inspired to work on the campaign by her jarring experiences when she talked to parents about the local public schools after moving to Philadelphia three years ago. She was always interested in enrolling her daughter at Henry, so she started asking other parents about the school.

“What I heard so much was ‘Have you seen the Great Philly Schools rating?’” Butts said, referring to the website that ranks schools in several categories, largely reliant on standardized tests. Butts teaches at Yes Philly, an alternative school in North Philadelphia, and was not impressed by the metrics used on the site.

“My response was: Yes, I have, but that’s focused heavily on test scores and that’s not all a school is about,” she said.

But she also found parents who had great things to say about Henry. And she started to notice a pattern. None of the parents who appeared afraid of the neighborhood school actually had a child enrolled there. But the parents who spoke well of the school sent their children there.

“It’s important to have face-to-face conversations. Rather than just looking at what Great Schools says, you can actually talk to someone who has their child enrolled there,” Butts said. “Henry has an amazing theater program, and my daughter’s been on the debate team. … All these things that people say you can only get in private school, she was able to do in her public school.”

But Butts didn’t know these programs existed until she talked with parents whose children attend the school. The picture she got from others was bleak and inaccurate, she said. And the negative perceptions get more ingrained in higher grade levels, where parents have more options, such as charters, magnets, and private schools.

“Since I’ve been at the school, I’ve been working really hard for people to see it as a viable option for 6th to 8th grade,” Butts said. “I was part of the Integrated Schools Facebook page. I realized there are a lot of people from Philly struggling with the same thing. So we started talking online.”

And so the campaign was born.

Parent to parent

Ami Patel Hopkins, who has been working with the District to improve the on-time kindergarten enrollment rate, joined the campaign because of her own experience with face-to-face communication. She plans to send her 14-month-old son to the local neighborhood school when the time comes. That inspired her to join the “Friends of” group at her current neighborhood school, Thomas Mifflin Elementary in East Falls.

As part of her job, Patel Hopkins interviews parents with children in preschool about enrolling in kindergarten at a District school. These parents were often averse to sending their kids to the neighborhood school, citing the same online metrics from Great Philly Schools or the national website Great Schools, which functions similarly.

But once she stops speaking to parents as an employee of the School District and starts speaking about her own experience as a parent, she said, the conversation changes instantly.

“I tell them everything I’m doing at my neighborhood school and how I don’t think that school is a 3 out of 10 like some website says,” Patel Hopkins said. “I tell them as a former teacher, I see the learning going on in that school, the amount of families involved in fundraising, and that’s when something clicks for those parents and I encourage them to go to an open house and meet the staff. You’ll know if it’s the right decision for you.”

And that’s the thrust of the campaign: to combat the inaccurate negative perceptions of Philly’s public schools by connecting parents who are considering a school with parents whose children are already there, so they are not entirely reliant on data that do not tell the whole story of a school.

“I’m going to believe anything that a parent says about where their kid goes to school over any website,” Patel Hopkins said.

Supposition vs. fact

When Patel Hopkins looks on the Great Philly Schools site, she sees Mifflin’s 3 out of 10 rating. But then she notices the abundance of information about the school that has no effect on its rating — such as the advanced STEM courses that the school offers.

She also pointed to the national website Great Schools, where many ratings are given but not explained, sometimes in ways that can be misleading.

“Equity, or offering opportunities for all students, it says it’s ‘very concerning,’ but why?” Patel Hopkins asked. “It doesn’t say. What I see on this site is not accurate, in my opinion, and that’s because I’ve been involved.”

What little explanation the site does offer uses equivocal language and is based on supposition rather than fact.

“Disadvantaged students at this school may be falling far behind other students in the state, and this school may have large achievement gaps,” the explanation reads. It seems to imply that the data of disadvantaged students within the school is being compared to the average for students across the state — not the average for other disadvantaged students.

The only other explanation seems to be contradicted by what little data have been posted by the website. Great Schools recommends that parents look at subsequent sections that compare the average test scores of students at the school to the average scores of black students at the school. It also suggests that parents compare the average test scores of students at the school to the average scores for low-income students.

Because the school has such a low equity rating, presumably these “disadvantaged” groups would be scoring below the average student.

But the data on the website show that the average scores for these two groups are exactly the same as the average overall. How this lack of inequity translated into a low score on equity remains a mystery even after reading the fine print.

Other ways to judge

Patel Hopkins said there are plenty of other ways to evaluate a school, based on data, that are not attempted by any of these websites.

“Look at [the data on] teachers and staff,” she said. “The percentage of teachers with three or more years of experience [at Mifflin] is 89 percent. That’s a good sign.”

Patel Hopkins has been trying out the promotional materials for the campaign herself.

“We have a magnet on our car, and people are already beeping and giving us the thumbs up,” she said. She hopes to download the logo and get it printed on a onesie for her baby son. “It’s a conversation piece. When we’re out on a Saturday in our neighborhood and Aiden’s wearing his onesie that says ‘We love our Philly public schools,’ they’ll ask, ‘What’s that?’ And we can have a conversation.”

These parents want to use their Northwest neighborhoods as a pilot program that they hope to spread to the rest of the city. They’ve designed the promotional materials and are making them available for parents all over the city to download for free. Bumper magnets, posters, and yard signs will be available at the event for a suggested donation of $5.

Kathleen Butts said she wants to use the campaign to create a connection among parents in different school communities.

“We’re starting in the Northwest, but we want this to travel everywhere,” Butts said. “Our goal is to find other community groups and parents’ groups and share these resources with other neighborhoods.”