Collapse of Chester schools: worlds apart, minutes away

Emma Waitzman/The Phoenix

The collective familiarity of Swarthmore students with Chester is diverse. In other words, it is not shared. Most likely, interactions with or discussions about the city are tangentially related — and limited — to education department placements, community fellowships awarded through the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, student group initiatives, or, more mundanely, driving directions to the College.

So it might come as a surprise to several students, whose extra-curricular activities don’t coincide with the affairs of the city (a city a mere ten minutes away from campus), that the Chester Upland school district is bankrupt.

And not just tight for cash or ripe for comprehensive bailout, but nearly flat-out broke. With only $100,000 in its savings account, a $1 million payroll and a projected debt of $20 million by the end of the school year, schools in the district are at risk of shutting down.

According to school officials, the financial meltdown was generated by the state’s illegal funneling of the district’s money to charter schools, which, apparently, more students attend. Recently, however, a judge ruled that the state give a $3.2 million advance to help keep the public schools open at least for another few weeks into the month of February. Yet throughout the disintegration of the district, teachers (who are members of the local teachers union) have promised to keep working “as long as they are individually able … even if they are not paid.”

But where does that leave students for the rest of the school year?

Options range from sending them to private schools, to having them live with relatives and go to other public schools, to altogether dropping out of the school system. Still, each of these alternatives costs money. Whether that is a financial burden on students’ parents or the schools of another district is a reality that could perhaps fuel the insolvency of yet another city’s educational system.

Despite the limited recourse Chester students and parents have, Swarthmore students and administrators have at their disposal a range of social, political and economic resources that, when used even sparingly, are profoundly impactful. From volunteer groups like the Chester Youth Court, to student groups like Dare 2 Soar (a tutoring and mentoring program), to the College Access Center (which provides free homework help and SAT/ACT tutoring for Chester students) located in the city itself, the possibilities for drawing attention to and becoming involved in Chester are inexhaustible. What is required on our behalf, then, is a consistent commitment to a worthwhile and critical cause through the several avenues of service available to us.

The economic deterioration of Chester nurtures high unemployment, poverty and crime rates. Allowing the one institution of social progress — education — to collapse in a city like this is to provide purchase to those figures. Allowing it to collapse as Swarthmore students is to throw away an opportunity for tangible and meaningful change in our surrounding community — a material initiative of the College and a crucial role of its students.

To sign a petition urging Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett to approve emergency funding for the Chester Upland school district go to http://www.change.org/petitions/governor-of-pennsylvania-pay-teachers-in-chester.

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