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The University of Pennsylvania and Systemic Change in Urban Schools

Written By Elaine Maimon

In this time of disease, racial reckoning, and economic challenge, the University of Pennsylvania’s announcement of $100 million invested over the next 10 years in Philadelphia public schools is a game-changer. It is a tangible example of systemic change at the most fundamental level.

The funds will remove lead, asbestos, and other toxins, making it safe for students, teachers and staff to breathe. What could be more basic to building a healthier city and what could be a better model for creating a more equitable society?

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports (11/16/20) that “the money is a voluntary contribution and would come from discretionary funds available to the president, not from the university’s endowment….” The decision is a remarkable act of leadership by the president of an Ivy League university. President Gutmann did not wait for the university Board of Trustees to deliberate on the issue of payments in lieu of property taxes. She forged ahead with something that will address a root cause of educational inequities. May other elite university presidents follow Amy Gutmann’s lead.

As an alumna of the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve always been personally grateful to Penn. My attendance was made possible by an earlier Penn investment in Philadelphia public schools—the award of a full-tuition scholarship to the top student at each of the city’s public high schools. I was John Bartram High’s lucky student that year. Moreover, when my mother died two weeks after my high school graduation, Penn added room and board to my support. Undergraduate professors then mentored me to successfully complete a Penn PhD in English. The university took me in.

I went on to serve the last 24 years as president or chief executive officer at three underfunded regional public universities — Governors State University in suburban Chicago, Arizona State University West in Phoenix, and the University of Alaska-Anchorage. During that time I’ve had several occasions to point to President Gutmann’s advocacy for public universities and the racially and economically diverse students who attend.

Several years ago when the PASSHE schools (PA State System of Higher Education) were particularly under threat from a former governor, Amy Gutmann spoke out, saying that the University of Pennsylvania could not possibly educate all the leaders necessary to a vibrant state and that it was essential for Pennsylvania to support these regional public universities. I hoped that President Gutmann’s statement would lead to a chorus of her elite presidential peers calling for funding for the public universities in their states. It didn’t happen.

This time when public schools, urban and rural, need the same dramatic degree of restoration as those in Philadelphia, I hope that other university presidents will think carefully about following President Gutmann’s trail-blazing example. The United States is at a dangerous crossroads, with a society that is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Throughout U.S. history, education has been the fertile soil of democracy. But our nation cannot be divided between schools that are safe, comfortable, even luxurious, and those where you can’t breathe the air.

My daughter Gillian Maimon is a second-grade teacher at Philadelphia’s Powel School. I’m uplifted every time I visit by what can be accomplished at Powel through the teachers’ talent and the principal’s leadership. Yet, Powel School is one of those with toxins in the ventilation system. Substantial numbers of Gill’s students contend with asthma, as do many students across the country. Powel students’ excellent education was frequently interrupted by avoidable illness because of the physical condition of the school. Thankfully, Powel is scheduled to move into a new building post-pandemic. President Gutmann’s gift will make it possible for thousands of additional students, now scheduled to return to unsafe and unhealthy buildings, to have a real chance for a quality education.

After sojourning in cities across the nation, my husband Mort, a longtime Philadelphia high school teacher and department chair, and I have returned to our hometown. Thank you to President Gutmann for making us proud of the University of Pennsylvania and of Philadelphia.


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