Where Do We Begin?

I’ve been busy at my PULSE assignment, focusing on STEM education initiatives in Philadelphia, and it’s going great! I’ve learned a lot, taking part in as many workshops, meetings, and volunteering projects as I can; helping educators through professional development workshops; leading our initiative to recruit, train, and schedule STEM Speakers to present to students about what they do (myself included!); and helping orchestrate STEM meetings and communications. But I attended a STEM Ecosystem meeting in early October, and statistics given about Philadelphia and the Philadelphia school district punched me in the gut…and made me wonder, where do we begin? What can we do to help our city and our young people?

Philadelphia was the original capital of the United States (1790-1800), and is where both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were penned. It’s the 6th largest city in the nation, and has an amazing depth and breadth of history, culture, art, music, and food! We’re also the VERY proud winners of Super Bowl LII!

But another list that Philadelphia tops, is that it’s the poorest metropolitan area. In fact, Philadelphia is both one of the most populous and most poverty-stricken cities in the United States.

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Current statistics show that 26% of Philadelphia residents (~400,000 people) are living in poverty, and half of those individuals are living in deep poverty. What does that mean? The federal definition of poverty is an annual income of $19,337 for an adult living with two children. Deep poverty is defined as 50% below that federal line; so a family of three living on less than $10,000 per year. This economic strife also bears a burden on the city, when a quarter of its population cannot help contribute to funding government services like health, security, and education.

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The statistics get even worse when we look specifically at children. Children make up 32% (~128,000) of poor residents in Philadelphia, and the majority (72.6%) of these children are African American or Hispanic. So, before two football stadiums FULL of children even get to school everyday, we’re unsure if they’ve had a safe and consistent place to sleep, when their last meal was, and if they’re in good health.

All of this has an impact on Philadelphia students and their ability to learn and succeed. In 2017, 16% of Philadelphia 8th graders were proficient in math, compared to 38% of Pennsylvania students. The 4-year graduation rate in Philadelphia has increased to 70%, but that’s still 10% below the state average. Increased economic burden on the school district also means a shortage in educators, support staff, and updated infrastructure and classroom equipment. The last time the Philadelphia school district purchased science equipment was in 2002! In an age of rapid technological and scientific advancements, this places Philadelphia STEM-interested students behind their suburban counterparts, who have access to new technologies and accompanying curriculum.

So what can we do? In my 4 months at the Education Fund, I’ve realized that’s a complex question with an even more complex answer. However, I’ve met a wealth of educators, city employees, non-profit staff, and committed individuals who are true heroes. They are passionate, and devoted to the well-being, support, education and autonomy of Philadelphia’s young people. In an economically stressed city of 1.58 M, are we just scratching the surface? While the obstacles are multifaceted, I don’t think so. The phase “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” comes to mind. The issues we face as a society are muddy, and multi-parted, but we need to pick where and what we a stand for, and work on that. We can then partner with other people and organizations who are working to improve other aspects of the issue, and by creating a network, we create change.

I’ll focus on what we’ve been doing at the McKinney Center for STEM Education in my next blog post, but for now, I leave you with a question: What do you stand for, and what are you willing to do for that cause?

Note: Cover photograph © Lexey Swall/GRAIN