I (Still) Have a Dream – for Philadelphia Students

In the late 70′s, as my father was assessing where in rural Michigan he could start a family practice, my parents chose a small Bavarian town called Frankenmuth for both residency and work – primarily because they had young children and the town had a strong school system. Growing up in ‘the Muth’, every August my mom (who taught in the district) made sure my two older siblings and I were excited about going back to school. As soon as word got out that classroom lists  had become available, we would hop into our full-sized GMC van and mom would drive us to town to find out who our teachers and classmates were going to be that year. Our future teachers were often already at school that day, preparing their classrooms. They would warmly greet us and tell us how much they were looking forward to having us in their classroom. I was stoked.

Of course, before Labor Day weekend, we would also make the infamous  ”back to school shopping” trip to the Office Depot to pick out the year’s prized Trapper Keeper, lunch box, notebooks, and school bag. Then we would swing by either Fashion Square Mall in Saginaw or the Outlets at Birch Run for the absolutely *critical* event of annual clothes shopping.

We were a rural middle class family on budget, and the message the adults sent us kids was clear: education was important, and it was important to be ready for it.

As I again approach the end of summer but now with the Philadelphia Education Fund, and with the city’s public school district in its deepest debt in history, I can’t help but wonder… If the adults of Philadelphia and Harrisburg can’t prioritize education, how will its youth be able to? Will Dr. King’s now 50 year-old “Dream” of justice and liberty ever be realized for Philadelphia’s public school students?


Since outlining the Philadelphia Public School crisis in my 1st blog post, there have been a few key developments. In this 3rd post, I recap recent headlines and also propose a few questions that the leaders and citizens of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania  collectively consider and answer. And of course, I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this scenario.


Key District News:

  •         In mid-August, the district secured $50 million from city council, which Superintendent Dr Hite said was required to ‘safely’ open schools on Sept 9th. This additional money reflects $83 million in total funding commitments secured for Philadelphia Public Schools this summer (PA Governor Corbett’s administration’s press release in July stated they were willing to commit $145 million, however, much of that money is still considered tentative). Ultimately, we have a long way to go to close Philadelphia’s remaining $200+ million deficit for the 13/14 school year.
  •         The money retained so far is allowing the district to rehire about 1,000 of the 3,800 staff pink-slipped in May.
  •         Dr Hite got the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to suspend State personnel rules so the district can rehire employees based on the schools’ specific needs, instead of by seniority, as required under the union contract. This gives the district some control, ensuring key staff who already have relationships with students continue to work with those students (keep in mind, Philly closed 24 public schools this summer. Even with these provisions, thousands of teachers and students will experience disruption this fall).  
  •          Numerous vested community members, including parents, principals, and teachers, are protesting and arguing that, despite being able to bring back some staff, the schools are not yet safe. Many schools will still be without youth guidance counselors, assistant principals, or other critical staff members.
  •          Saturday, August 31st, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (union) contract is up for renewal. State government, city council, and the school reform commission are requesting about $120 million in give-backs from the union to help contribute to the remaining budget gap. Although vehemently opposed to this request earlier this summer, the union has only done one commercial – and it was against Mayor Nutter. (I find this odd since he is not at the bargaining table and is not up for re-election). Otherwise it has been pretty quiet. It will be interesting to see what develops within the next few days.

Leaders and citizens of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia:  It’s one thing to open our schools on time. It’s another thing to educate our youth. Let’s come together. Find common ground. Make Dr. King proud. Collectively, begin to ask and answer questions that will enable equality,  justice, sustainable growth, wellness, and success for Philadelphia and its people. Such as…

1.    How can we accurately and fairly fund Philadelphia Public Schools, long-term?     The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over Philadelphia Public Schools in 2002. Until 2010, the state used a funding formula (considering students per district, community poverty levels, and local tax effort) and was able to observe that districts that were strategically invested in produced the greatest student achievements. Unfortunately, according to the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, PA is now one of only 3 states that no longer has an education funding formula for its public schools. (Or my interpretation of that is,  there is a formula – this formula can also be called “politics” – and this formula will not be made transparent). Within the last 2 years, Governor Corbett has cut PA education funding by $1 billion. Not only does this put greater burden on local funding, but it is important to know the fundamental principles of fairness and equity regarding how the smaller state ed budget was allocated were not considered.  As a result, even though Philadelphia is educating more students in poverty, more minority students, more students who are learning English as second language, and more students with special needs, it has one of the lowest per-pupil funding mechanisms of any district in the Commonwealth.


2.    If indeed ‘all things are possible’, what would outstanding public education look like? Result in? How would this impact Philly’s economy in the next 10-20 years? Safety? Culture? Innovation?


3.    After falling for 50 years, from 2006 – 2012, 20-34 year-olds’ share of Philadelphia population grew from 20 – 26%, accounting for growth and diversity of the city by 58,897. Like my parents, these preppies and hipsters are also educated. And they won’t be riding the Erin Express or the Naked Bike Ride forever (…let’s not think about my parents for this part, ok?!). Soon, the majority of these young professionals will mature and have children of their own.  They will care about what schools their kids go to. Given the present failure of our district, why would we believe we could keep this growth generation in the city? Let’s stretch and twist that to a more opportunistic question… how can we not just retain but leverage this generation of young Philadelphia professionals and their families to improve our public schools?

4.    What other assets does Philadelphia have that can be leveraged to improve its public schools?  Here are a few … 

    • According to the University of Pennsylvania, there are 1,600 registered education non-profits and start-ups in the Philadelphia region. With clear intent and collaboration, imagine what could come from this resource!
    • Philadelphia is also a city of neighborhoods – and there has been growth in local neighborhood groups. For systemic and sustainable change, it has to be from the ground-up as well as enabled from top-down… how could these neighborhood groups be leveraged?
    • GSK is a part of a strong and diverse business community… how can our collective  pressure state and city government to appropriately fund schools – our future workforce? What other role can the business community serve here?
    • You tell me – what other assets do you feel Philly has that we can strategically leverage to improve our public schools?  

What else?
 Are there any other constructive questions our community should be discussing and answering, together? Or do you have thoughts on any of the questions above you would like to share?

SHOUT OUT:  I’d like to thank my GSK Vaccines colleagues who helped contribute to the Philadelphia Education Fund’s Teacher Supply Drive over the past 2 weeks. You all did an awesome job and will provide supplies to 40 teachers! Your generosity will make a difference this fall!

Finally, THANK YOU for following and supporting my PULSE journey with the Philadelphia Education Fund.  Although it is my name on the blog, I genuinely feel – because of your encouragement – we are all in this together. Peace.



  1. Well written Sarah. Quoting PHL School Superintendent, Dr. Hite, “these are truly extraordinary circumstances”. Now that funding allows schools to open, we’ll see if teachers will be in those classrooms based on their contract vote…….

  2. You continue to amaze me. I am proud to know you and honored to call you a friend. Philadelphia Education Fund and Philadelphia youth are lucky to have you!!

  3. As usual Sarah, you have provoked my thinking. I have been following the Philadelphia School crisis, but your blog has provided a nice summary of the state of affairs. School reform is a critical societal issue that will require full collaboration from the state & local government, the union and the community. GSK has contributed a significant amount of money, as well as our highly qualified employees, such as you, to help, but what else can do you think we and other companies can do?

    1. Thanks for your note and question Kathy. Indeed, GSK is appropriately regarded as a community partnership leader in Philadelphia. As such, I sense we could also rally other Pharma or STEM-based (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries in the area to pressure if not demand city and state government to appropriately fund public education – and our future workforce. This is the first priority. I am confident, as a collective, we could influence lawmakers to address this civil rights issue and prioritize education. That said, the community could also help the district be able to effectively use money, once received. To do this, I sense the district needs more than a couple GSK PULSE volunteers to help build whole-scale capability that would ultimately enable urban students to graduate ready for college. The district has some very intelligent, dedicated people working within it – but, overall, it does not have the power, competencies or resources needed to effectively overhaul its default direction and effectiveness. However we could incent or train current passionate teachers to become leaders in organizational change – and/or incent current business leaders to crossover into education – is another way our business community could help. I’m sure many things are possible – and as a business community collective we could identify how we could strategically improve outcomes for our youth. Again, I’m open to hearing more people’s thoughts and ideas here.

      PS – This fall, I am also working on seeing if a Future Search conference is something the District would consider doing! I have spoken with Sandra Janoff, co-founder of that whole-scale change methodology, and she said she would be willing to help if the District was interested! If this happens, we will make sure the business community is represented.

  4. Sarah- very informative post on the recent school district developments, thank you! I was surprised to read about the number of educational non-profits in the region, seems like a ripe opportunity for collaboration and strategic alignment. To your question on “what does outstanding public education look like”, I just started reading a book I thought you might enjoy: “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley. I’ll let you know if there are any pearls there.

  5. Sara –

    As usual – an interesting, thoughtful, thought provoking blog post. Keep them coming…and keep up the great work – have to run out now and grab a couple Trapper Keepers for the kids.


  6. Hi Sara,

    I love your passion!!! Thank you so much for the blog and for your fantastic work with the Philly school system.

    Take care,


  7. Hi Sarah – Thanks for this thoughful and inspiring post. I know you are all doing incredible work. What can we do as a company to positively impact this situation? Good question for which I don’t have answers. But you have us thinking which is step!


    1. Hi Breelyn! Thanks for your comment and question! Kathy Oates left a similar question, so please feel free to check out my response to her… and know that I am open to continuing this conversation. I greatly appreciate your interest in support. If you have any ideas or want to talk further, I am all yours. Take care.

  8. Hi Sarah! It is so great to hear about the “Muth”! and your experiences going back to school as it reminds me of that excitement! You have posed some great questions and have gotten several of us thinking I can see from the posts. I am wondering about the age group the MSC works with and am wondering what non-profits may be working with kids to help them learn about business. I have learned about a few here while I’ve been in another geo and am curious to compare notes. I am looking forward to catching up with you to talk soon! Take care : )

    1. Hi Kim! First, I still want to talk to you live soon. You are on my mind! 🙂 Second, MSC works with kids grades K-12 now. We have speakers come to their classrooms (this year we may try virtual visits via technology like LiveMeeting, etc.) and also arrange field trips to STEM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) companies to expose kids to a range of careers – many of which are in ultimately in business. Of the 1,600 education-focused non-profits in this area, I’m not sure how many others help expose kids to careers – let alone careers in business. I’ll keep an eye out for learning more on this. Thanks for your question, and hopefully we can connect soon.

  9. Hi Sarah, I got word of your blog via Wes and it is excellent and informative. What a wonderful program GSK has to allow this to happen. I’m happy you are able to have this experience and put your skills to this important use. My stepson goes to independence charter school, and this has inspired me to give more to help support them financially and also to get more involved with the school.

    Do you know if any part of the real estate tax increase (much needed) revenues in Philadelphia are earmarked for education?

    1. Hi Gwen! Thanks for your note – great to hear from you. 🙂 I haven’t found a direct answer to your question but did find an article you may be interested in reading. I do have a contact at the Mayor’s office who I aim to be meeting with in the next couple of weeks. If I can get a direct answer to your question from her, I will relay that to you.


  10. Hi Sarah,
    Wes shared your blog with us, and we are very impressed with the work you are doing! Hats off to GSK for their part in this. Thank you, to all involved, and may you be very pleased with the results of your efforts. Best wishes to you!
    Francine and Tom[

  11. it is really a wonderful program you realised .I’m really impressed as it is means a lot of work and skills .Thanks for sharing your experience with us .It is nice to know what is organised by people living in other countries and can give us ideas .Thanks a lot.Valerie

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