Save the Children (of Philadelphia)

With honor and humility, I began my 6 month PULSE assignment at the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF) last month.  PEF partners closely with the school district as well as other nonprofits, universities, and corporations like GlaxoSmithKline to provide programs & initiatives that help enable Philly youth to be prepared for college and careers.

This first blog sets current context for the Philadelphia School System and also outlines my intent and underlying beliefs as I approach this assignment. This way, you’ll have an idea of both the big-picture challenges and opportunities PEF (and I) will be working within as well as the lens by which I’ll be approaching them.


For starters, the Philadephia School District, including charter and parochial schools, is the 8th largest in the nation. It also has a 61% high school graduation rate, which is up from 44% in the mid 2000’s. Last summer, a new superintendent, Dr. William Hite, was hired to overhaul the struggling district.  So far, Dr. Hite seems to be generally respected by locals as a credible leader  when it comes to school reform. Speaking in ‘GSK language’, it is safe to assume, when Dr. Hite took on Philly Schools, he was accepting the most challenging 70/20/10 development plan of his career thus far.

From a financial perspective, the school district has not kept pace with rising costs and fluctuating state aid (this, despite already closing more than 30 schools and cutting hundreds of central office workers). For this upcoming school year, the district was $304 million short of its required budget. Therefore, in May, it sent layoff notices to more than 3,700 teachers and staff, 20% of its workforce.

These cuts impact Philly youth (of whom more than 80% are considered ‘low-income’) in that many will now have different schools to transport and acclimate to, large classroom sizes, and virtually no music, art, or sports teams to participate in. As well, if a student wants to assemble a college prep plan, or has a mental, emotional or behavioral problem, there won’t be any school counselors or teacher aides available to guide them.

Take a moment to consider these facts and the long-term implications they have, not only on our fellow humankind but also our potential workforce:

No music.

No art.

No sports.

No school counselors.

No teacher aides.

Pennsylvania’s state constitution charges the General Assembly with providing the state’s residents a “thorough and efficient system” of public education “to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Despite this proclamation, last Sunday – before the fiscal year began – Governor Corbett offered a slight but nowhere near suitable offer to help close the district’s fiscal gap. At this point, many of the pending layoffs will likely still go through.

Finally, with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union contract ending in August, there is now added pressure for them to contribute to narrowing district costs for the upcoming year. Any ‘lowering of union costs’ essentially equates to cutting teacher pay and benefits across the board. No matter what peoples’ views are on unions, chances are, many of us agree that great teachers are the key to an effective education -and, in Philly, they are already carrying the emotional and mental brunt of these recent decisions. If we want to attract and retain top teachers, one thing’s for sure: we need to identify how to compensate them in a way that rewards their high performance, not disregards or inhibits it.



As I begin working with PEF, this multi-faceted, complex context has me asking numerous questions…. Not only about the district and PEF, but also about myself, my assignment at PEF, the Philadelphia community, God or spirituality, and the world we live in. And, as I ask these questions, it’s important to recognize my intent within the assignment and also my underlying beliefs – as these will drive how I approach the work and perhaps also the impact I will have.

With that in mind, my intent for this PULSE assignment is to leverage my leadership and human resource and organization development competency to enable PEF to contribute and impact even more as a sustainable key partner (to the district, teachers, nonprofits, universities, corporations, parents, caring citizens, etc.), enabling the district and its youth to be both top performing and respected. FYI – My next blog will have more specifics about what I actually will be accountable for, while here.

My personal ‘underlying beliefs’ as I approach the assignment with PEF include:

  • We are all on earth with a deep purpose – and we all deserve to become all that we can be. Education can often facilitate this.
  • Considering Nelson Mandela’s attached quote, the experience of attaining an outstanding education right now is probably the one shot our Philadelphia children have at getting out of poverty in their lifetime.
  • Despite the various stakeholder viewpoints on education, we all have a common ground. We need to find and focus on that.
  • We are all connected. If Philly kids fail, we all fail. If they succeed, we all succeed.
  • With complex topics like this, we humans tend to judge or discriminate against who or what we don’t understand or know. I must model and enable others to seek first to understand; then form an opinion.
  • This will not be easy and neither Dr Hite nor PEF can do it alone. To reference the old African proverb, it will ‘take a village’ to raise Philly’s youth to become educated, thriving citizens.
  • Approaching this as ‘a problem to solve’ will limit our capability. This scenario is too big and complex for that. We must consider what the future can look like. And all things are possible.
  • I am not an expert in school reform. But, as an organization development practitioner, I can help enable the dialogue and the initial steps for reform to take place.
  • Philly kids are awesome! (I know via my work with Urban Blazers the past 7 years.) They have as much potential as any child anywhere. They deserve to have an outstanding education.
  • I am humbled to have this opportunity to contribute to one of the most potent issues of our time.

Thanks for reading my blog!  If you have any comments, words of wisdom, questions, or even education or reform contacts that I should get to know pronto, I encourage you to share them below.  I will stay in touch!


  1. Hey Sarah – Excellent post and inspirational message. I look forward to following you on your journey!


  2. Sarah — Seems this assignment hits a deep chord– stirring emotion, spirit and intellect. What a contribution you can make at a time of great challenge. Cannot wait to follow along with your blog posts. Thanks, Wendy

  3. Sarah,
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughful post. I am looking forward to reading more as your assignment continues. I know you will have a big impact at PEF and subsequently on the children of Philadelphia.


  4. Sarah,
    Your comments are powerful and touching. I know you’ll do a great job I look forward to learning more as your assignment progresses. This is a really important endeavor.


  5. Hi Sarah – really enjoyed your post as you begin your PULSE assignment. Can’t wait to learn more about your impact at PEF as your assignment continues.


  6. Sarah,
    Thank for your excellent post. I’m no expert of education reform but like you feel this is one of the most important issues facing most of our communities here in the U.S. I will look forward to following your efforts at PEF.

  7. Hi Sarah! Great first post, I esp. liked the context setting as it was ‘educational’ for me.. I know you will make a difference – keep up the good work & keep writing ! Best, Manu Juneja

  8. Thank you for sharing your recent post. I know you will have a huge impact on this assignment, no matter what direction it takes. Looking forward to hearing more about your adventure! Best regards,

  9. Sarah,
    I enjoyed reading your first blog. Your background on the current state of Philadlephia’s education system highlights the urgent need for the good work fo the Ed Fund. You will make a huge difference and no doubt learn a lot about yourself along the way. I look forward to following your journey. Send my regards to Don and then entire Ed Fund staff.

  10. I loved your blog! It completely resonated with me…..your mission will be complex no doubt–but I believe you are off to an extraordinary start. I look forward to following your journey.

  11. Sarah,

    Your first blog was very inspirational especially in light of my being reassigned to a Title I school in my district outside of Washington DC. I am looking forward to attending an AVID Conference later this month in Indianapolis. Its aim is to instill the dream of college and lifetime success in students as early as elementary school. Some of my school staff will be attending a similar conference in Philadelphia next week. I would have accompanied them, but already had my summer vacation planned for the same week. Remember as you take on the challenge: “Nothing is more consistent than change and nothing meets more resistance than change.” Thinking “all things are possible,” you’re already facilitating positive change. All the best to you and your partners for success for all involved stakeholders! Tim Rosin

  12. Just wanted you to know that I read your blog and it gave me a BIG smile, it really warmed my heart. Your passion for kids and helping people in general is nothing short of awesome my friend. Says me to myself (yes I do talk to meself, scary right?), “Yo self, now that’s the Ms Sarah I know and love from the hallways of GSK.” You are a good egg Sister. Sometimes it will seem hopeless and frustrating, but know that you are making a BIG difference just by being there and being YOU. I look forward to your next post and I leave the house today with an extra bounce in my step because I know you 😉

  13. Gosh Sarah, you really know how to move and inspire people. I got a little chocked up reading your post! Philly kids are lucky to have you fighting on thier side. Thank you for taking the time to write this blog and please let me know how I can support- I will certainly keep my eyes and ears attuned to others who may ba able to support you efforts.

  14. Great blog post – and assignment for you, Sarah. I look forward to following you and know you’ll make a meaningful impact at PEF. They are lucky to have you there. Best of success!

  15. Thank you, Sarah- a very inspirational post! I know you’ll do great work and make a big impact at PEF.

  16. Hi Sarah. I loved reading your blog! What an awesome challenge but they sure do have the right gal on the job. Your positive energy and enthusiasm jumped off the page at you. Our kids need and deserve the opportunity to get the BEST we have to offer. Without a doubt, your presence will make a difference!!

    Looking forward to the updates!

    Love ya,

  17. Sarah- Wow- you covered so much important information in your blog. You will make a difference because- it can be seen in the passion in which you write. It is a huge challenge- but- so important for the future of our country that kids have a fighting chance. Thank you for all you are doing and please- let us know what is going well and what challenges you encounter.
    Best regards,
    Bob Serdar

  18. Sarah, thank you so much for your inspiring post and for how you educated us on the real challenges facing Philly youth and the community much like challenges across the country. I do believe that assignments such as yours at PEF is a true a calling to make a difference and help generate solutions we need to create a culture of educational excellence for our communities. Your courage inspires and challenges me and others to think and act and for that reason the world will truly be better for it. Can’t wait for the next post!

  19. Sarah,
    Great blog, makes me want to be back at the Ed Fund! I can already tell you will have an impact not only on the Ed Fund but the children of Philly!

  20. Sarah,
    Great post, you made me wish I was back at the Ed Fund. It is evident to me that Ed Fund and the children of Philadelphia schools are lucky to have someone like you who cares.

    All the best

  21. Truly inspirational stuff, Sarah! I know you will bring immense value to PEF and make a massive contribution to their mission. Keep the blog’s coming as your journey continues 🙂

  22. Thanks for sharing your thoughts thru the blog. I’m looking forward to following you as you proceed on this new journey!


  23. Amazing first blog, Sarah! Thanks so much for sharing. Learned so much through your context-setting, and also felt incredibly inspired by your reflections. PEF and, most importantly, the kids in Philly are lucky to have you fighting on their side! I know you will make each moment of this journey matter — and you will make a difference in the process. Let me know if there is anything I can do to be of support. Look forward to following your adventure!

  24. Amazing first blog, Sarah! Thanks so much for sharing. Learned so much through your context-setting, and also felt incredibly inspired by your reflections. PEF and, most importantly, the kids in Philly are lucky to have you fighting on their side! I know you will make each moment of this journey matter — and you will make a difference in the process. Let me know if there is anything I can do to be of support.

  25. You’ve captured the context and so many of the issues facing kids in Philly, Sarah. Thanks for being so thoughtful in this post. You passion, your thoughtfulness and your expertise come through every day at PEF. We are lucky to have you working with us.

  26. Very inspirational Blog. Your heart is clearly in the right place – there is deep alignment between your personal value system, the needs of the children in the Philadelphia School District, and the objectives of this PULSE assignment. I am a product of Philadelphia public schools, and I am so proud to be associated with you and the journey you’re on. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. Take good care.

  27. Sarah… WOW! I was inspired by your blog. Know that I firmly believe that you will give and receive much to/from the children of Philadelphia and those leaders with whom you interact during your assignment. I cannot agree with you more that your beliefs will drive the resultant actions you take. Be encouraged (i.e. filled with courage) especially when facing seemingly impossible odds. Many people care about you and the children you are serving. Look forward to reading more from you.

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