Will Philly technologists send their kids to city schools? - Technical.ly Philly

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Feb. 25, 2015 11:41 am

Will Philly technologists send their kids to city schools?

Retaining tech talent: It used to be about brain drain. Now it's about city schools.

Arcweb CEO Chris Cera speaks at a City Council hearing last year on how local entrepreneurs view the city's schools crisis.

(Screenshot via Channel 64)

Correction: An earlier version of this article included an example of a couple who left Philadelphia but incorrectly stated that city schools were a primary reason why. They have been removed from the story. (2/26/15, 2:58 p.m.)

Fourteen years ago when Chris Cera graduated Drexel in his early 20s, he felt like all his tech friends were leaving Philadelphia for jobs elsewhere, though he found a way to stay. Since then, Philly’s bad reputation for losing freshly graduated college students has largely turned around. Today, Cera, the CEO of web and mobile development company Arcweb, is noticing a new wave.

"The schools crisis is going to become a dominant part of the Philly tech scene's conversation."
Chris Cera, Arcweb

More and more people in the tech community are now staying in the Philadelphia area, but for all the success in growing a dense urban core of innovation, Cera says he fears there’s a new kind of drain. Now that he’s in his 30s, the new tech friends he’s made are leaving the city for suburbs, almost entirely for the perception of more reliable and better-funded public schools. It’s something he said last spring at a Philly Tech Week City Council hearing.

“The technology community here is significantly stronger. There are way more groups, way more entry points, a lot of access to information that, previously, was unavailable,” he said. “[But] the schools crisis is going to become a dominant part of the Philly tech scene’s conversation.”

This isn’t entirely new, that relatively young, mobile knowledge workers are highly demanding in their offerings. Some new parents are rallying around their neighborhood schools. Some parents learn to navigate the School District of Philadelphia to hit its most successful corners. But others are simply leaving.

Last year, Venturef0rth cofounder and entrepreneur Jesse Kramer moved from Queen Village because of the confusing high school choice process for his kids, according to a social media posting. Journalist Patrick Kerkstra did the same and wrote about it. City of Philadelphia Director of Civic Technology Aaron Ogle faced residency requirements when he took the job because he and his wife were commuting from the suburbs.

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"A lot of my friends in the last three to four years have left the city to start families, or their kids were of school age and they felt embarrassed explaining to their friends that they are going to a Philly school."
Chris Cera, Arcweb

There are many great programs and compelling schools in Philadelphia, but it can still feel like a gamble, Cera has said. Consider what some technologists might find in even some of the more celebrated schools in Philadelphia.

Joseph Ippolito, a teacher at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), says that the hardware he uses might not impress a technology community.

“You have these old laptops,” said Ippolito, who was originally hired as the tech leader for the school but is also an English and creative writing teacher. “They become pretty useless. Except for very basic things like typing up a document and sharing it or printing something, or basic research. You can’t do a whole lot of stuff with them.”

Principals can feel that their budgeting for technology requires a new kind of skill. Where should a school invest its IT budget?

“It could mean additional laptop carts, it could mean more smart boards, it could mean tablets,” said Joanne Beaver, principal at CAPA. “We have to assess the needs at the time and what we feel will benefit the academic program the most. There is definitely a lack of technology in the building.”

Paige Czyzewski, 22, an alumna of CAPA agreed that there needs to be a boost in tech for the school system.

“Considering how technology shapes our world, I feel like every child should be learning to use technology,” said Czyzewski. “I understand the problems with the Philadelphia School District, I get that. But technology is extremely important.”

Due to this lack of technological focus in the schools, younger people now need to rely more on volunteer groups in the area for hyper-intensive training.

Christian Kunkel, who leads the edtech initiative at web dev firm Jarvus Innovations and is an organizing member of the volunteer coding group Code for Philly, has been involved in some of these groups. For example, he’s on the board of Coded by Kids, a small nonprofit that offers youth coding classes. Kunkel said that the groups within the area have a large network of supporters, but always need more room to grow.

“As an organization, that can be the connecting point between government, technology and education,” said Kunkel. “We think we can support them and facilitate their operation to be larger and more effective.”

A lack of technology might not be the only problem. Philly schools have faced troubling times before, and this causes a shift in the attitude of people towards those schools.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re going to send your kid to a Philly [public] school?’ It’s a perception problem,” said Cera. “A lot of my friends in the last three to four years have left the city to start families, or their kids were of school age and they felt embarrassed explaining to their friends that they are going to a Philly school.”

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A Temple University graduate, Dan Marcel is a Philadelphia journalist and photographer. In his spare time he enjoys reading and exploring the city.

  • John

    My wife and I both work in tech and live in the city. We’ll be sending our kids to Catholic parochial school here. The schools provide a great education and have an unabashed moral direction. The cost of grades K-8 is pretty small; it’s not an issue for white collar professionals, especially with double incomes.

    There is a great opportunity for revival of the diocesan schools as the wave of young residents are confronted with a public school system that is in disarray.

  • Amanda Elefante

    Its great to see the tech community in Philly trying to address so many important issues, not the least of which is education. Thank you for this article, it was enlightening.

  • Gabriel Farrell

    As I begin to look at schools for my son, the technology level is low on the list of priorities, following more important considerations like educational philosophy, classroom environment, and student-teacher ratio.

  • cyberian summer

    We found our school by looking at the lunch program. Kimberton Waldorf School makes all their lunches from scratch with organic ingredients, including many from their own garden. We came for the lunch program and stayed for the curriculum.

  • Anittah Patrick

    I absolutely agree with the suggestion that much of this is a perception problem and sadly, much of the perception problem is rooted in deeply embedded classism. I encourage all members of the PHL tech community to take the time to actually step foot into your neighborhood school. Volunteer. Mentor. Find your local Friends of group. Frankly, I find it sad that anyone would feel embarrassed to admit their child attends a public school in Philadelphia. (Full disclosure: I more than a little look down on people who flight to the suburbs when their children turn five.)

    Also: if anyone lives in the Kirkbride catchment and has a child who will enter kindergarten in 2018 (i.e., your kid is presently 1.5 – 2.5 years old), ping me! I am hosting an event on Monday for Read Across America for neighborhood families 🙂 http://www.nea.org/grants/886.htm

  • Doug C

    When the tech or young succesful’s currently in Philly do move out, where will that be? It could be a win/rebirth for some of the close suburbs, as some of them have also been in decline for the even further out areas. This new class likely may want out of the city for more reasons then schools, but will want to stay as close as possible. I assume the inner burbs that have a train stop close are likely targets.

  • Matt

    I view school and education as a high-touch field vs. high-tech. Technology not only is a crutch for sub-par teachers, but I would imagine that our teachers have more pressing priorities – like seeing if the child is in a safe environment at home and has enough paper in the class so students can take a test. We need to enable our teachers to have a safe and well-stocked classroom so they can do what is best – not make sure that each kid has the latest laptop.

    Now secondarily to this point, another way to read this story is “Will the newly affluent, well educated, well connected, and socially active parents send their kids to Philly schools”. That is a question of classroom safety and learning environment, education priorities and teaching philosophy, opportunities to succeed now and in the future, post-graduate opportunities, after-school activities, etc. There is always a debate around urban vs. suburban schools – and with the inflection point of more people staying in cities, namely Philly, at some point, people will choose with their feet if the city doesn’t get their act together. Of course, Philly does have some of the best schools in the entire state, but it might be hard for a parent with options to gamble that system?

  • Uri Pierre-Noel

    I’m only 23 and I have already resolved to not raise kids in Philadelphia, due in part to the school system. My father has been a math teacher for almost 20 years in New York City. During his time as a teacher we’ve witnessed the changes in the school system due to gentrification, and lack of funding. Now I see a lot of the same issues happening here in Philadelphia, and it’s really disheartening. I went to a high school in Upper Darby and never knew much of the city schools. Even more, my sister is a teacher has taught at numerous schools in Philadelphia. The stories she tells me about these schools are depressing. Aside from the lack of technology, there are issues of safety, educational philosophy, teacher quality, and classroom environments. Most of these issues just like in New York City, stem from problems with upper management and funding in these schools. Currently, I work in the tech scene and love being here but I could never see myself saying I would send my kids to a Philly school. Though technology isn’t the biggest issue, it’s a major point of 21st Century literacy and shouldn’t be reduced to a first world privilege. I myself am still finishing college, and my digital literacy has given me the edge in every job I’ve ever had, more so than current graduates. I really hope the tech scene as a whole makes it a point to communicate these concerns and help facilitate change. I’m trying to do my part by mentoring a high school intern. Sorry for the rant, but digital literacy has kept me here in Philadelphia and I’m grateful to everyone who helped me. I just want to pass it along. #WhyIlovephilly

  • Also need better transit from ‘da burbs’?

  • Jess Smith

    Understandable, the lack of funding in Philadelphia schools is a huge problem, and that’s what has caused such a shortage of technological education that our kids can receive. But it’s true, technology shapes our every-day world, and EVERY CHILD should be learning to use technology in their schools, there’s no arguing about it.

    BUT hasn’t anyone filled the gap yet where technology JUST MAY BE THE SOLUTION to fund Philly schools?? If we’re such a tech-growing city, who is doing something about it? I’m sure people are trying, but we’re not trying hard enough. I don’t have kids, and probably won’t for a long time, but it bothers me that we’re complaining + pushing people (and talent) away rather than finding alternative routes.

    PS: To Joseph Ippolito: I would love to discuss this more over coffee if you see this. I’ve got some ideas.

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