A Pot Luck with Great Lasagna and the Next Mayor

Michael Nutter and Citizens and Great Expectations Pot Luck

Friday evening, I had the pleasure of joining a Pot Luck at Ebony Staton and John Weidman‘s house in Mount Airy as part of the Inquirer’s Great Expectations/Citizens Voices Forum. Below I relate my interpretation of some of the highlights of the evening with a healthy dose of paraphrasing. To the extent possible, I'm letting participants thoughts speak for themselves and accept all responsibility for any errors or misinterpretations. Comments and feedback are welcome.

According to Chris Satullo, head of the Great Expectations project and former Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Page Editor, soon after his May primary election, Michael Nutter was at a restaurant in Center City and expressed an interest in engaging in a series of low key events where he could personally interact with Philadelphia residents prior to the November election. Great Expectations proposed a series of pot lucks and Al Taubenberger (or Al T., with no disrespect intended), his opponent, was agreeable.

Ms. Staton and Mr. Weidman live in a beautiful medium-sized single family home that they purchased in March of this past year. The pot luck included a variety of excellent food including rellenos de carne and other choice empanada-like pastries provided by attendees from Kensington, cole slaw with cabbage from a Philadelphia community garden and some out-of-this-world Lasagna from Ms. Staton. During the course of the evening, Al T. expressed his opinion that the food was better than the previous pot luck, last Wednesday, to the delight of all who attended.

Prior to starting the listening session, I had the opportunity to talk with a couple of the participants and get to know them.

Mary Ellen Graham is a social worker and professor at the University of the Sciences. She lives in Fairmount. (She contributed the cole slaw to the meal that included cabbage she grew in a community garden somewhere around town.) Ms. Graham's dream, however, is to start an innovative shelter for homeless men to be located in Germantown that provides clients with extensive support services. According to her, such shelters have been started in other places and proved successful. After almost two and a half years of working on the project, she has been told that the ideas are solid and the obstacle that remains is the question of whether the project can be funded. Furthermore, she says that there are folks at the Department of Human Services that love the idea but that funding the project will ultimately be a result of decisions made by the Next Mayor.

Alexis Gonzalez is a 15-year old from Kensington. Alexis came with his pastor, Adan Mairena, who leads a congregation in West Kensington. Alexis is about to start Edison High School in a couple of weeks. He has worked helping fix computers at a shop near Kensington and Allegheny Avenues and wants to study welding. He spoke of one of his cousins who does underwater welding and how difficult it is to work underwater, in what is often claustrophobic environments fixing boats. I asked Alexis what he wanted from the next Mayor. He said that he wanted a Mayor who would do to Philadelphia neighborhoods what politicians had done across the river from New York City in New Jersey. As he understood it, there, the officials had gotten uptight about graffiti and trash. To show they were getting uptight, they had instituted serious fines, like $500 for anyone who was caught defacing buildings or littering. The officials had also told abandoned factory owners they had 30 days to do something with their properties or that those factories would be knocked down. And apparently scores of them were.

Click read more if you like.

Other Philadelphia residents that attended included: Annie Leary and Yael Lehmann, who work with John Weidman, at the Philadelphia Food Trust; Patricia Berrian and Fracesca Toscani, both of whom relocated to Philadelphia after decade long absences; Ivan Ortiz, from near Kensington and Erie; Sheyna Arthur, a native of D.C. now working as a social worker in Philadelphia; Blake Lehmann, who works at the Center City District managing maintenance after the completion of capital projects, and Leroy Howell, who has extensive experience working with Septa and the School District. Patricia noted that she was disabled and wanted a Mayor who would be sensitive to her needs. Ivan noted that he was from the "Bad Lands" and that unfortunately, too many kids considered it a badge of honor to be from the "Bad Lands," and that his goal was to change the neighborhood's nickname. Sheyna, said that all the progress D.C. has made over the past decade gives her hope for Philadelphia.

The listening session was kicked off by Harris Sokoloff, the Great Expectation project leader and session moderator with everyone listing the issues that they thought the Next Mayor should address--and as you know--the issues never change.

The discussion started with a topic cited by Annie, from the Food Trust. For her the next Mayor really needs to act on the environment, and in particular figure out what Philadelphia can do about Global warming. Going around the table, issues raised included single stream recycling and better zoning to allow water-less urinals but the idea that sparked the most passionate input were stories about community gardens.

Pastor Adan noted that whenever a person was killed in Kensington, folks would go to community gardens to seek peace and solace. As he put it, many lots were abandoned not long ago but now they are sources of delight. Unfortunately, in his opinion, too many folks were now building or developing these lots and as a result his community was losing one of its few sources of green space. Mary Ellen noted that she grew her cabbage in a community garden. Patricia noted how community gardens helped kids to understand where their fruits and vegetables came from. Al T. noted that in Germany, where his grandparents were born, every garden has a fruit tree and imagined how powerful would it be if Philadelphia adopted the same tradition. Numerous participants wished there was more funding to expand community gardening activities within the School District. In closing out the topic, Michael Nutter noted that the environment means many things to many people but that it's not just about doing the right thing, it's about educating citizens to realize that ultimately we benefit financially (personally and at the city government level) by doing the right thing environmentally. He mentioned that there were numerous groups working throughout the city working on community gardens (and I think he promised to support them and see if efforts could be better coordinated).

Harris Sokoloff interrupted to point out that it was unrealistic to expect that the School District to do everything, including supporting community gardens, and asked what trade offs people would make to help support new initiatives. No one really seized the moment to say what they'd give up. Still, the discussion turned to education. Leroy said that the School District really needed more resources to reduce class size. Patricia described the challenges of classroom management no matter what policies are in place. Ivan said that in Kensington, children are raising children. According to Ivan, today, "Big Mama" is neighborhood speak for Grandmom, and all too often Grandmom is only thirty-years old. Parental involvement seemed to be a big issue for many attendees.

On education, I was especially struck by the challenges evident in anecdotes by Pastor Adan and Alexis. Pastor Adan spoke of how there was no future even for many kids graduating with diplomas. For him, Youth United for Change's efforts to make the number of college recruiters at Edison High equivalent to the number of military recruiters in recent years spoke volumes about the lack of opportunity for kids being educated in Kensington. (YUC is an affiliate of E.P.O.P. lead by teenagers at Edison, Olney and Kensington H.S.) Alexis told how in middle school, on countless occasions, as many as thirty kids would gang up to bully one kid in the school yard and that the school faculty did little, leading him to fear for his life. As a result of the disorder in his middle school, he said that he spent as much time with his Pastor, Adan, as he could. Church is one of his few reliable sanctuaries.

The Mayoral Candidates had a lot to say on education.

Michael Nutter noted that the history of the School District of Philadelphia over the past few years is one of fads. First there were regions and then there were clusters and now there are regions again. He noted that the administrative organization is meaningless if it doesn't recognize that what really matters is that at each school there is a committed team consisting of a good principal, good teachers and involved parents. In his opinion, the job of Mayor is to provide Moral Leadership, and for example, to help parents become involved by getting the business community to support vacation days and sick days as needed.

Al Taubenberger, whose wife is a kindergarten teacher at Tioga Elementary, said that the seniority rules were stifling efforts to improve the School District by depriving kids in worse schools of more experienced teachers and that the rules desperately needed to be altered. Mr. T. also noted that both rural and urban schools are in trouble and that it's the job of the Mayor to build a coalition at the State level to rectify inequities. Mr. T. expressed his belief that the Mayor has enormous power to inspire neighborhood participation. To cite one example, he noted that as President of the Burholme Civic Association, he had over a 100 neighbors turn out in the middle of a snow storm because Rendell was going to be there.

Michael Nutter noted that the Mayor's job is to provide leadership and coordination to improve the School District, and most importantly to lead the fight for equal funding. Mr. N. (for equality's sake) believes that education is a component of almost all of the challenges that Philadelphia faces.

From Alexis' worries of violence, the discussion turned to how to make the city safety for young people and create jobs. Michael Nutter noted that studies show that when kids are involved, fewer unwanted activities occur. He said that it is true that city agencies will often do not have the resources they need but that at the same time there is an enormous lack of coordination and collaboration that results in city government not maximizing its effectiveness. Michael Nutter noted that while the Chamber of Commerce's effort to employee 1000 kids is admirable, it may have only really employed 400 kids this summer (don't quote me on this) and that Boston, a city that is one-third of Philadelphia's size, currently has a similar program employing 4,000 young adolescents.

Pastor Adan noted his frustrations that so many people in his neighborhood are employed by social services and non-profits but that they often seem to be unaccountable. For instance, according to him, there is an after school program that has plenty of money but that kids never go for more than a short period of time. The folks at the non-profit are always after him to send kids from his church but that when he sends them, the kids just get talked down to and complain to him about being straight-jacketed into boring activities.

Mr. T. noted that the light went on for him when he was listening to Professor Elijah Anderson, a prominent former Penn and now Yale sociologist, tell how men in poor neighborhoods always asked him, "why is it so easy for me to sell drugs and so hard to find a job." Mr. T also said that one-year ago, as President of the Chamber of Commerce, he would explain to folks why it was impossible to hire individuals with criminal records and now that he was a candidate for Mayor, he realized that businesses "must provide second opportunities." Michael Nutter noted that Philadelphia's tax burden and overly attentive Parking Authority, among other items, makes the city a less than attractive place for businesses. According to Michael Nutter, government is in the business of customer service and that it has to do a better job. Al Taubenberger noted that every day, at least a handful of small businesses that employee five or ten people leave Philadelphia city limits and that there is no one in city government that talks to them or tries to address their concern.

Each of the Mayoral Candidates were given the opportunity to tell citizens when they wanted from them. Al Taubenberger wanted engaged citizens. Michael Nutter wanted citizens to have higher standards of their elected officials and stated that they needed to expect and demand more from city public servants.

There were a well-deserved round of applause for Mrs. Stanton and Mr. Weidman's hospitality. I'd like to including a personal thanks from myself. Thanks!

Chris Satullo thanked Mr. Nutter and Al Taubenberger for being so responsive and hoped that their willingness to listen and engage would be reflected in the leadership style of whoever took office for the betterment of the city.

Certainly, it was evident to me throughout the discussion that there was a real sense of relationship building. I don't know how much time the Next Mayor is going to have for pot lucks but I think maybe we should see how many people can fit in room 215.

Before leaving, I chatted with a few attendees and Michael Nutter. Michael Nutter noted that debates and blogs are useful tools but that it was at the grass roots, talking in small groups and one-on-one, where it was really possible to build relationships and connect.

To which I can only add, Amen.

Notice that

todays topics (taxis via the Parking authority and prisons) were addressed in passing by Michael Nutter and Al Taubenberger at the Pot Luck. Hopefully, the next Mayor can improve the parking authorities attentiveness and community relations with taxi drivers and provide jobs instead of jail cells.

Michael Nutter's commons sense on education issues

Mdcphilly, thanks for this report. I was struck by the following comment:

Michael Nutter noted that the history of the School District of Philadelphia over the past few years is one of fads. First there were regions and then there were clusters and now there are regions again. He noted that the administrative organization is meaningless if it doesn't recognize that what really matters is that at each school there is a committed team consisting of a good principal, good teachers and involved parents. In his opinion, the job of Mayor is to provide Moral Leadership, and for example, to help parents become involved by getting the business community to support vacation days and sick days as needed.

This is the kind of comment which really resonates with teachers, administrators in the trenches. Every time we get a new superintendent, the first thing we get is a re-organization—-remember David Hornbeck’s clusters, which were then undone by Paul Vallas.

I have seen the same kind of thing happen at CCP. Each CEO wants to put his/her stamp on the institution, create a new program which will be a testament to his/her superior skills and pave the way to the next job.

A similar point was made in Sunday’s Inquirer:

In fact, one of the worst things school systems do is to let the new CEO scrap everything the old one put in place. Continuity helps produce results.

Let’s hope the School Reform Commission, like Michael Nutter, understands that another rearrangement of the deck chairs is not what we need.

a simplistic read Karen?

Now I don't know enough about Nutter's specific plan to comment, but to comment on your analysis Karen, i would not compare Paul Vallas and David Hornbeck as equal as you ostensibly do.

Hornbeck may not have had much political finese, but he had a solid background in education and many of the reforms he implemented in curriculum were right on. What he did not have was the resources that the District got by making a deal with the state to be taken over. Vallas had those, but he had no experience with real reform and instead encouraged schools to do whatever they could (which mostly meant pulling the best students out of classrooms and pumping them up with additional instruction) to boost test scores.

I agree that continuity is important, but let's also remember how important it is to have a curriculum and instructional environment that values learning for all, over test scores, and how important it is to maintain resources to let everyone succeed.

Vallas and Beyond

My son will enter kindergarten for the 2008-2009 school year. My wife and I are primarily looking at Philadelphia public schools, as are a number of our friends. I have been working in public school advocacy for the past several years, starting just after Vallas came to town. He restored hope in many that public education in Philadelphia could work. He and his team were always very accessible and responsive. He is not flawless, but the positive impact he had and the upward trajectory that he put the SDP on is undeniable.

Thank god Paul is beyond the city boundaries.

Vallas was good at PR, especially when it came to saying what parents wanted to hear. He sure as hell didn't restore hope amongst the teachers in this city. The violence and daily disruptions that occured throughout the city were continually covered up by the Vallas administration. There is something morally wrong when 14 staff members have to be attacked at the same school during the same year before Vallas removes the principal. He was also EXTREMELY vindictive towards anyone who dared to question ALL THINGS PAUL. Where are all these schools he claimed he was going to build? If anything was a factor for making things better it was the state takeover. Gee, maybe there should be text books if you want children to learn. It would have happen even if he wasn't here.

Choosing between Hornbeck or Vallas is like saying who would you rather be suppressed by, Stalin or Hitler. Both were doing what their political task masters told them to do. The basic problems that were there ten years ago are STILL present today. Don't be fooled by the noise about test scores. Too many kids are not getting services they should be receiving by law. Just alot of excuses as to why these services can't be supplied. I had a kid last year who literally couldn't write words in 3rd grade that you could read. It was one endless stream of consonants. When they finally got around to testing him (after a two year wait) his mom was told that he was lazy. Hardly, but this is the same district that said he was to be promoted because he sat for a couple of weeks during the summer in a worksheet factory.

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