Last year, Sheila Armstrong’s son Skylar, 12, walked one minute from his home to William H. Harrison Elementary School in Philadelphia, where he never had more than 25 kids in a class, and every teacher knew him by name. Armstrong, a single mother, didn’t worry about her son’s safety when he was at school, and springtime simply meant more time on the playground. She knew aides would look out for him during lunch and recess, and a school nurse was there if he should need help. Simple amenities, yes. But in Philadelphia, they are a lost luxury.
When Harrison Elementary shut its doors for good at the beginning of this school year, there was literally nothing Armstrong — or any other parents, students or teachers — could do about it. Harrison Elementary was one of 24 Philadelphia schools closed by the city in 2013 in an effort to help with a $304 million budget shortfall. The move was part of a district-wide slaughter, which included slashing extracurriculars, laying off 676 teachers and nearly eliminating guidance counselors citywide.
“Gov. [Tom] Corbett visited Harrison when he first ran for governor,” says Armstrong. “He spoke to us and promised he would do anything he could do in his power to keep it open. A year and a half later the school was shut down.” What many parents viewed as mixed messaging left them feeling frustrated and powerless. Since then, education funding has become a big problem for the Republican governor — and one of the biggest talking points for those seeking to become his Democratic rival in next week’s gubernatorial primary race in Pennsylvania.
Officials from the School District of Philadelphia (PSD) said they chose to close schools like Harrison based on factors like enrollment, the age of the facilities and the quality of the educational programming. Over the past decade, PSD has lost more than 50,000 students due to a declining birth rate and the rise of charter schools and other educational opportunities in the city, resulting in many schools operating well below their capacity levels. Harrison Elementary had major enrollment declines, expensive building repairs on the horizon and was operating at only 39 percent of capacity, according to educational planner Bill Montgomery. The school also failed to pass the Adequate Yearly Progress  tests that serve as a benchmark in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
For the district, closing schools down was a way to save money fast. But what about the broken educational system that had produced these underperforming schools in the first place? Could anything be done to change it? Fortunately, Armstrong found a coalition of people who, like herself, were ready to jump in and help. POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild) began in the spring of 2011 with a handful of clergy and lay leaders listening to the stories of more than 1,000 people on the streets and in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. The group identified the biggest problems affecting Philadelphians — poverty and education becoming top priorities — and set to work trying to fix them.
Today, POWER is a well-oiled interfaith community-organizing machine — with more than 40 congregations and 500 community organizers — funded by charitable foundations, some local unions, personal contributions from individual donors and congregational membership dues. The group’s successes have made national headlines: In November 2013, POWER won a new minimum wage for workers at Philadelphia International Airport in a highly publicized local win. Thanks to POWER’s lobbying, the city council will put a referendum on next week’s ballot that would expand the city’s minimum wage and benefits so that it applies to all workers, including those working for subcontractors.  Michael Nutter, Philadelphia’s mayor, has even issued an executive order raising the city’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $12 per hour starting in January 2015. The referendum will make sure that order stays put, regardless of who’s in charge.
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POWER’s plan for education reform in the city was to develop one-on-one relationships with parents. Armstrong was identified as a mother with leadership potential for her outspokenness, knowledge of the education system (she works as a teacher’s aide) and fierce determination to fight for her sons’ safety. POWER representatives asked her to help organize regular meetings where parents discussed their hopes and dreams for their kids and the barriers they faced. Building on these conversations, POWER planned to take parents’ stories and ideas to principals and district leaders, changing schools individually.
“We knew to organize around education we needed to work with parents because the people closest to the students need to be the ones calling the shots,” says Cecily Harwitt, POWER’s lead organizer for education. Recruiting parents turned out to be the easy part. “As we started organizing, we’d go to the principal with ideas we got from the parents,” Harwitt says of simple requests like adding an additional lunch aide to help with crowded cafeterias. “The principal would like the idea but then say, ‘right now we don’t have money for paper, so we really can’t talk about that.'”
Armstrong told the coalition about how drastically her son’s situation had changed since Harrison Elementary closed. Skylar’s new school is a 25-minute walk across vacant lots, housing projects and a major four-lane thruway where the traffic lights sometimes go out. Crossing guards are nonexistent.
And then there’s Skylar’s asthma. At school, “he is responsible for taking care of it himself,” Armstrong says. There is no guarantee that a nurse will be there to help her son out. Since the cuts, schools are lucky to have a nurse in the building one day a week. School policy mandates that students with chronic health problems like asthma store their medications in the nurse’s office. Principals and their secretaries are responsible for administering medication. It doesn’t always work: Earlier this year, a sixth-grader died of an asthma attack that started at the William C. Bryant Elementary School in Philadelphia, where there was no nurse on duty.
Though these initial conversations got parents talking, those involved quickly realized that the situation was too extreme to fix only on a school-by-school basis. Capitalizing on parents’ desire to act, not just talk, POWER tapped into its network of congregations and was soon holding rallies in churches across the city, organizing protests that shut down major thoroughfares and calling upon the mayor to act.
The first time Armstrong spoke publicly was at a rally of more than 300 people at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church last August. She brought down the house with her emotional stories of students who were failed by Philly schools. “That rally was so much more energizing than the meetings,” Harwitt says. “This was a time when we said we’re tired of this crisis-to-crisis mentality, and we started thinking about fair funding.” POWER members realized they would have to change the system at its core by going after the very way schools get money across the state.
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Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the country, along with Delaware and North Carolina, without a fair funding formula, meaning that the state doles out money based on property taxes collected within each district — richer districts get more money. High poverty schools in Pennsylvania receive $3,000 less per student than wealthy ones.
Along with parents like Armstrong, POWER is fighting to make the lack of a fair funding formula the single biggest issue in the governor’s race, strategically engaging voters and holding candidates accountable. Before the Democratic primary next week, POWER plans to move 5,000 voters to the ballot by canvassing neighborhoods across the state and stocking phone banks with parent volunteers. The next planned phase will be mobilizing another 5,000 voters for the general election in November. And POWER has built a denominational network across Pennsylvania, working with interfaith organizations in Pittsburgh and Allentown to push forward the same agenda.
According to David Koppisch, a POWER fundraiser, the results have been surprising. “Nine months ago [when POWER first started engaging parents in their cause to change schools], the feeling was there was no way we could get the attention of the governor and the state legislature. Now it’s clear it’s the issue or at least tied for the top issue of the governors’ race.” In fact, every Democratic candidate has claimed to support a full fair- funding formula.
Even as the larger battles over fair funding still loom, parents in Philadelphia are counting small victories. Armstrong’s son is doing well in the sixth grade at the Spring Garden School, thanks in large part to his mom and other parents. Armstrong has helped to organize a “safe corridor” staffed by a network of parent volunteers. Every day after school, parents stand at corners along the route from Spring Garden to faraway neighborhoods along these displaced children’s commutes. They shepherd students home, keeping behavior in check and dangerous elements like rowdy teens, drug dealers and violence at bay. Parents have also started volunteering during lunch hour now that the weather is warmer so that children can have the proper supervision to get out for recess. But with the sun and warmth, Armstrong starts to worry.
“With the warmth comes chaos. Right now there is a lot of violence in the high schools, and they don’t have the staffing to make a difference,” she says. When those high schools let out, the students start to linger on the Spring Garden property, fighting with the younger kids and causing trouble. Without the resources to provide adequate staffing and supervision, Armstrong and her small army of parent volunteers have been filling in to make up that difference — for now. She hopes her efforts toward fixing the route of the problem will pay off and those resources will be restored with a fair funding formula.
“Schools don’t have the proper resources on a state level. These children are our future taxpayers. What is our future going to look like if we’re not educating them properly?” Armstrong says.
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