Wednesday, December 10, 2014

West Philadelphia is doing just fine, thanks

What do we do with the old West Philadelphia High School? It's inarguably a beautiful building. Built in the early 1910s, it was part of a movement to deliver better education to America's growing cities. With stone carvings, concrete castings, mosaic tiles, many of these schools throughout the northeast echoed prestigious institutions of higher learning like the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

Later waves of educational investment are reflected in the Art Deco architecture of the 1930s and 40s.

But feats of architectural innovation, particularly aging ones, don't translate well in the modern world. The old West Philadelphia High School is massive, riddled with asbestos, and functionally out of date. Following the construction of its replacement, the old school has sat vacant with occasional interest in converting it into apartments, condos, dorms, or entertainment venues. 

One option may be to reopen it to education. But one company recently showed the school's neighbors exactly how to not make that happen: By being complete ass holes.

Pansophic Learning, a Virginia-based K-12 school system, has proposed leasing 90,000 square feet of the building from Strong Place Partners, who intend to convert the rest into apartments. Pansophic wants to provide the neighborhood with the Philadelphia Music and Dance Charter School. As fine as that sounds, they didn't just pitch the idea in the worst way possible, their methodology is perhaps the worst technique for training music and dance: distance learning. 

Pansophic bills itself as an "International Education Company." The word "company" is the first red flag. Commercial education belongs in the realm of undergraduate alternatives: Strayer, ECPI, ITT, DeVry. These organizations aren't useless when it comes to certification programs and business education. But they are second to the educational opportunities found in traditional four year colleges. And they do not belong in K-12.

So why exactly is Pansophic so bad? Well, besides their complete lack of engagement and understanding of the community (which I'll get to in a moment), Pansophic's goal is to deliver education to nations and communities without proper educational resources, in many cases, developing nations. When you're attending a school without basic plumbing and you have no other alternatives - say a brand new high school a block away - Skyping with a teacher in McLean, VA is a step up. But it's hard enough to learn English Literature in a classroom when you're twenty, imagine learning music and dance from a laptop when you're twelve.

Still, the methodology of this corporate school might not be its worst trait. That would be left to either its arrogance or complete cluelessness when it comes to addressing the neighborhood it fancies gracing. Pansophic referred to it as "this blighted part of western University City," claiming its school will "greatly support the resurgence of the community."

Do they mean the community that has been in resurgence for the last decade with improved affordable housing, transit, and a brand new public high school? Are they blinding peddling the canned sales pitch they've used around the globe? Or do they view the "blighted" neighbors as naive enough to spend their hard-earned paychecks on a piss-poor education? 

Maybe they're just one of thousands of companies around the nation that haven't gotten the memo, "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is." Thanks, Pansophic, but we're not a big Detroit, we're a small New York.

Ass Holes!

One thing is for sure, a company run by educators should know the definition of "patronization." 

Philadelphia has teachers, good ones. They're underpaid and overworked, and constantly fighting for the resources to do their jobs well. Do we thank them by outsourcing to virtual teachers from Virginia?

Virginia has one of the best public education systems in the country and some of the highest paid teachers. It's no mystery how Panosphic came to be. They're employing the state's surplus of education degrees in cities struggling with broken systems. But they're not the solution, they're the leach. 

West Philadelphia's community won't benefit from a distance learning system. That system only competes with our state funded teachers and schools, making their jobs even harder. Again, the word  "company" should have been the first red flag when it came to Pansophic because that's exactly what it is. They aren't a "charter school," they're a business, and their business model is to compete with Philadelphia's struggling schools and profit from their demise. 

If they were sending teachers too Philadelphia, teachers who would live in Philadelphia, that would be one thing. But that's not how these schools work. They hire low paid class moderators to maintain the peace while students stare at a somewhat interactive, virtual classroom on their laptops. They're masquerading as the savior of neighborhoods with struggling public schools, but they ran afoul in West Philadelphia because it's succeeding on its own. 

I think it would be great if Strong Place Partners leased 90,000 square feet of its space to an educational organization, but only if that organization was dedicated to education first and profit last. But that is not Pansophic. They just want to run your kids through a treadmill of standardized dynamic teaching methodologies, or some other politely worded translation of "low overhead and high profits."


  1. I'm writing my graduate thesis on a similar topic. Vacant public high schools can be used for so much more than just polarizing for-profit charter schools. Cheers sir.