School supplies, registration, and ice cream: Philadelphia’s back-to-school bus tour begins

A group of children in large, colorful backpacks stand with their teacher.
Parents and students gathered at the Martin Luther King High School in Germantown for the Philadelphia district’s back-to-school bus tour on July 31 that featured free ice cream, music, and information about school registration. (Carly Sitrin / Chalkbeat)

The first day of school is still more than a month away, but Philadelphia is starting the back-to-school excitement early.

Monday marked the kick-off event for the school district’s third annual back-to-school bus tour, an effort started in 2021 to share information and resources for the upcoming school year, and to improve communication between the district and families — an issue that’s continued to dog district leaders.

Parents and students gathered at the Martin Luther King High School in Germantown for free ice cream, music, and information about school registration.

“Today’s kickoff is our collective first step to uplifting all of our learners so that they are equipped to realize their dreams,”  Philadelphia Board of Education President Reginald Streater said at the event.

This past year was a tough one in many ways for Philadelphia school families. Gun violence claimed the lives of more than 20 students. Damaged asbestos closed buildings. And issues with the city’s lottery enrollment system for special admissions schools damaged trust in district leadership.

This coming school year, Superintendent Tony Watlington’s second in office, he said he has big aspirations for the district. This bus tour will set the tone, he said.

District employees and volunteers on the tour offered families help with school registration, gave out free backpacks and school supplies, arranged immunizations, and shared information about school scheduling. The district’s first day of school for nearly 114,000 students will be Sept. 5.

Local businesses and city service agencies also set up tables at the event to let families know about SEPTA public transportation offerings for students, internet service assistance, events at public library branches, and other resources.

This is Watlington’s second year kicking off the tour. But it’s a smaller version of the 2021 back-to-school tour, which made 31 stops around the city. This year, the bus tour will make 11 stops and will run through Friday, Aug. 18.

“This back-to-school celebration allows us to engage our families right where they are, bringing important back-to-school information and services directly to neighborhoods across the city,” Watlington said Monday.

The tour is funded through a $150,000 grant from the Independence Blue Cross Foundation.

Parents Michelle and Wayne Jones said they are grateful the district is making an effort to connect with families. Wayne graduated from Martin Luther King High School in 1980 and has a daughter Giavonni who is about to start fourth grade in the district.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Jones said, “to see my school having something for the community.”

Priscilla Howard — the guardian for Jada and Jayden Whipple, two students in the district — said the tour has saved her money on backpacks. Howard said the event is especially important for her family and neighbors in the Black community who have struggled under what the city has called generations of “disinvestment” and “structural racism.”

“We need this,” Howard said. “Everything is going up but the paycheck.”

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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