Othella Stanback could very well be a Philadelphia public school success story in the making. At 19 years old and in her senior year at Ben Franklin High in North Philly, she’s dropped out of school twice and considered leaving more times than that. But she’s always come back. And she has dreams for herself.

"I want to be an FBI agent," Stanback says, sitting in the late afternoon on the steps of a local welfare office, where she’s come to file paperwork. She has two young children–4-year-old Amor and 2-year-old Amira–and while it’s been tough juggling school and parenting, her ambitions have remained intact. "Or teach philosophy," she says, ticking off her potential careers. "Except I took one of those quiz things for college recently and it told me the thing I’d be good at is organizing." Of course, before starting any of those careers, she needs to get into to college–and that’s where the odds are stacked against her.

Stanback’s got her sights set on Millersville University, a state college in Pennsylvania an hour and a half west of the city. College applications are typically due at the end of November, but she doesn’t have the strong file she ought to. From ninth through eleventh grades, Stanback attended University City High, where she took biology, chemistry and physical science from a favorite science teacher. That’s who Stanback would have asked for a letter of recommendation for college. But earlier this year, Universtiy was shut down in a massive sweep of school closures in Philadelphia. In the ensuing chaos, Stanback lost touch with her science teacher.

"I had connections with teachers, it was relationships I built," Stanback says, looking back at the educational home she lost. "So now when I come to school I don’t really know anyone. I have nobody I can connect to and no teacher I can really trust to talk about certain things, because that takes time."

Philadelphia’s public education system, with roughly 140,000 students, is struggling for survival. In 2010, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett was elected on a platform that included a range of controversial, if increasingly widespread education reform ideas. He called for test-driven teacher accountability, vouchers, decreased regulations for charter schools and a larger role for private, for-profit entities. So when Corbett faced a state fiscal crisis–one that has been compounded by the loss of federal stimulus money, which was propping up the state’s education budget–he responded with a mixture of austerity measures and hardline reforms for public schools. Last year, the governor slashed $1.1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, cuts that particularly devastated Philadelphia’s state-controlled schools. On the advice of a private consulting group, school officials announced that the district would need to close a stunning five dozen schools, and noted that the district ought to brace itself for dissolution. This year, in an effort to forestall that devastation, the district asked teachers to take pay cuts of between 5 and 13 percent of their salaries. That wasn’t enough. In the spring, the district closed 23 schools, including Stanback’s. This fall, students went back to schools with skeletal staff after the district laid off 3,859 people, one of every five district employees.

Philadelphia is deep into worst-case scenario territory, but it’s not alone. In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago–all of them with sizable black populations and long histories of entrenched poverty–lawmakers have responded to budget crises with cuts to public education and market-driven education reform agendas. In a city like Philadelphia, which has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities, in which 39 percent of the city’s children live in poverty and in which blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be poor, robust public schools are even more vital. The consequences of the collapse of the city’s public school system is falling squarely on the backs of Stanback and her classmates. [Photo below: Mural outside now-closed University City High School]

Government Shutdowns

Stanback was uprooted from University City High and replanted in a crowded field. She was one of roughly 9,000 students, the overwhelming majority of them black and Latino, whose schools were shut down in the mass closures. Benjamin Franklin High School, which Stanback now attends, is bursting at the seams with an influx of new students from shuttered schools. "The hallways are so crowded, and at lunch you have to fight to find a seat, that’s how packed the lunchroom is," says Sharron Snyder, an 18-year-old senior at Ben Franklin who is best friends with Stanback.

Ben Franklin has thus far weathered the immediate budgetary crisis intact. But previous rounds of budget cutting have been wearing away at the school for years. "We used to have pre-calculus, and an advanced writing class," says Kelli Ross, a 17-year-old senior at Ben Franklin who had her eye on that advanced writing class for years. By the time she was old enough to take it, it was gone. "We had honors classes for ninth graders, too. But we don’t have any of that anymore." When Ross started in her freshman year the school had a counselor for every grade. Gradually counselors disappeared and today there’s just one serving the whole school. "We’ve always had good programs," Ross says. "It’s just, a lot of the good stuff, we can never keep."

"Budget crisis" is too tame a phrase to describe what’s happening in Philadelphia right now. The cuts hit bone. Nurses, counselors, teachers, lunchroom aides, assistant principals and librarians were eliminated. On Sept. 25, a sixth-grader named Laporshia Massey passed away after she suffered an asthma attack at school. Massey’s school didn’t have a nurse, and her family argued one could have saved their daughter’s life. In fact, during the budget crisis, school nurses warned that cuts to nursing staff would hurt student academic performance and endanger student safety. Three weeks after Massey’s death, amidst public outcry, Gov. Corbett released $45 million in state money to rehire some teachers, counselors and other support staff. Corbett had been withholding the money on the demand that the teachers union hand over further concessions in their contract standoff. When he released the funds, Corbett’s administration made sure to mention that he wasn’t doing it because of Massey.

The budget crisis in Philadelphia, in cutting as deep as it has, highlights the fact that schools are so much more than buildings that house desks and kids, and that education is much more than classroom learning and testing. Schools are lifelines in communities, often functioning as the hub in a neighborhood. Nurses, counselors, assistant principals, music teachers and librarians play crucial roles in sustaining those communities and keeping children afloat. Take counselors, for instance, who do so much more than settle class schedules and lay out college brochures. At the start of November, 80 counselors laid off in the midst of the crisis were returned to Philadelphia schools so that every high school will have at least one counselor, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. But the damage was done for many students. Not having counselors around for nearly two months at the beginning of the school year left them without guides through the testing and college application maze. Some schools even declined to offer PSATs, which prep students for the SATs, because they didn’t have counselors to coordinate the tests.

Sometimes, though, it’s the everyday details that are the most maddening. Trina Dean, a fourth grade teacher at Thomas Mifflin Elementary in North Philly, had 42 students at the start of the year and only 30 textbooks. So what did she do? She started photocopying the books. "Which is illegal, actually," Dean notes. By the time the district shifted 10 students out of her class, she had gone through an entire case of copy paper–a supply that was supposed to last her the entire semester. Students across the district have been sent home with supply wishlists asking parents to bring in copy paper, pencils, markers, even toilet paper.

"There’s no other word for it than ‘criminal,’" said Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union. "They’re destroying futures, the impacts of which will be felt for generations after. What has been done to the Philadelphia school district the past two years alone will leave impacts that will be felt for generations after."

If only it was just the past two years, though. Philadelphia has been the guinea pig for every kind of education reform fad that’s come along in the past 30 years, driven primarily by venture-philanthropists like Bill Gates and for-profit consultants like McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group. Performance standards, state control, vouchers, restructuring, decentralization, charters, teacher-focused and test-driven accountability efforts–Philadelphia students have had a front-row seat to all of it.

Mass school closures are a hallmark of this movement. Sharron Snyder, Stanback’s friend at Benjamin Franklin High School, has seen it reshape the North Philly neighborhood where she grew up. Snyder ended up at Ben Franklin in her junior year after Rhodes, the all-girls public high school she attended from seventh through tenth grades, was reconfigured into a co-ed school last year. This kind of churn isn’t just a symptom of education reform, it’s a tactic. In the business world, successful businesses thrive and weak, underperforming ones wither and shut down. Proponents argue that when this principle is carried over into public education, the resulting competition lifts the bar of expectation and results for everyone. But in practice, schools are not businesses and communities don’t function the same way as markets, and school closures haven’t left a trail of academic success stories in their wake. Rather, the instability they provoke takes a toll on communities. For Snyder, it goes back further than high school. She and her siblings went to a neighborhood elementary school that was remade into a daycare center after it was shut down in the last round of closures. It’s still jarring for her to walk by the school and not see neighborhood kids playing in the yard. "It’s like, where are all the kids?" Snyder says. [Photo below: Sharron Snyder]

Back in March, Snyder, Stanback and Ross, who are all active with the Philadelphia Student Union, took part in a walkout to protest the mass school closures. Some 5,000 students and parents took part, using the hashtag #walkout215–Philadelphia’s area code–to mobilize students. The closures still went ahead, and by every account more are on the way.

Snyder is direct about the racial dynamics at play. "They’re taking away mainly from the black and brown communities," she said. "Everyone can notice that." Black youth are 54.5 percent of the district but were 80 percent of those whose schools were announced for closure. "They make us feel like we’re the bad ones," Snyder says. "We’re not. You’re just not giving us the things we need. So when you see our failing test grades you want to close our schools?" Snyder says those low test scores reflect the catch-22 in which students are trapped. "It’s because we don’t have books, because of what you’re doing."

Independent Study

Othella Stanback’s two big college-application challenges today are studying for the SAT and gathering the means to visit colleges."Ideally I want to be able to expand my options and see as many campuses as possible, but that’s the hard thing right now," she says.

Even getting through this school year will be a challenge for Stanback. She notes that University City High supported teen parents with a program to help pull them through school with extra social and academic support. Ben Franklin’s got its own Teen Parent Classroom, one merciful constant from her University City days. But Stanback’s had to miss school to take care of her kids, and of her own mom, who usually looks after Amor and Amira while Stanback’s at school. 

Instability is the norm at Ben Franklin now. Seven weeks into her last year in Philly public schools, Othella’s course schedule has been changed three times. Teachers and students and classrooms were swapped every few weeks. Of her six classes, Stanback doesn’t have textbooks in three. The books she does have are chewed up, bindings broken and pages missing, she says. Both Stanback and Snyder say that in their English classes they sit three students to one book. There simply aren’t enough books for everyone, so no one’s allowed to take them home. All Stanback’s schoolwork fits in a small children’s backpack meant for toddlers.

The other thing Ben Franklin doesn’t have? An open library. "I asked them the first day here, ‘Do you have a library?’ and they told me, ‘It’s closed,’" says Stanback. The doors are shut; students can’t go in.

Of course, Stanback doesn’t remember the book and library situation being a whole lot better at her old school. "At University City High, you couldn’t ever take a book home," she says. "Ever." But she was close with a teacher who looked after her. "She’d give me books to read," Stanback says. "If she had it, then I could have it."

According to the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, at the end of the last academic year 13 librarians took an early retirement in anticipation of the mass layoffs. Brenda Maiden, the president of the association and former librarian at Carver High School of Engineering and Science, was one of those who chose early retirment. She says that eight of the 16 school librarians who remained after the early retirements got laid off, which left eight school librarians to serve the entire district this school year. That doesn’t mean they’re able to guide students through the library. "Our certified librarians are being used as classroom teachers, or as prep teachers for testing," Maiden said. "The libraries may be open, but the books are sitting on the shelves."

The only thing that clearly stings Maiden more than being forced into early retirement is that Philly students are being denied access to a school library experience. "It’s a disservice to the children of Philadelphia," she says. "Especially at the elementary school level. Those children need those skills. What is a fiction book? What is a non-fiction book? Are they being read to? It’s like having a baby. And you have to take care of and mold that child," Maiden frets.

Since the start of the school year, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, together with the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education, have collected roughly 800 parent and community complaints about the impact that this year’s budget crisis has had on students. They are filing their complaints with the state in an attempt to force Pennsylvania to take responsibility for Philly youth. Philadelphia schools have been state-controlled for a dozen years, and the movement argues that Corbett and state lawmakers are failing in their legislatively mandated duties to provide adequate, quality public education.

It’s unclear what course the legal process will take, if any. Pennsylvania has 60 days to investigate each complaint made. "I think the filing of these complaints is unprecedented, and the reason why this is happening is because parents are desperate and are searching for anything they can do to provide some hope of action," says Michael Churchill, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.

Stanback certainly feels the urgency. For herself, for her family’s future, for her daughters. When asked to envision her ideal high school environment, she doesn’t ask for much. "It wouldn’t even have to be beautiful," Stanback says. "It would be like, you know, you have books. You have paper. You have the classes you need to get you to college."