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Kathryn Block

TBC Alumni Journal: Advocacy and Engagement in Philadelphia

Kathryn Block, chief of communications and external relations at the School District of Philadelphia, explains how the district has created valuable local partnerships and rallied community members and leaders around the state to advocate for needed funding.

Kathryn BlockAt the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), we often say that “it takes a village to educate children well.” Decades-long underfunding of public education as well as the human and financial devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have amplified the very real and significant inequities that must be addressed to unlock the full potential of all of our nation’s diverse learners. It is impossible to do this work alone. That’s why intentional outreach and advocacy efforts are a fundamental part of how we must operate to engage our village of families, community members, elected officials, business leaders, and many others as educational partners and influencers. 

Advocacy efforts are most successful when you can harness the power of many voices as one unified voice. Last school year, when potentially harmful state-level legislation was being proposed, we leveraged the power of superintendent voices across the commonwealth as part of Pennsylvania’s Urban Superintendent’s Coalition. Together, we participated in joint op-eds, letters to state representatives, and a press conference in Harrisburg to effectively ensure our shared concerns could not be ignored. This advocacy, together with our lobbying efforts, helped to successfully stem legislation that would have been detrimental to our schools and students. 

We also launched a Fund Our Schools campaign that empowered our entire community as funding advocates in Harrisburg. Phase 1 of our campaign declared every Thursday “Advocacy Day” across Philadelphia. We leveraged internal communications, our superintendent’s weekly FaceBook Live platform, and numerous engagement sessions with faith leaders and other influencers to highlight our need for funding stability. And we created a website to share call-to-action resources such as pre-crafted letter templates, social media posts, and contact info for legislative officials, which made it easy for people to raise their voices and take action. Thousands of people engaged, helping us to maintain our funding levels for SY2020-2021 when budget cuts seemed certain.

Advocacy efforts can also be more impactful when there is a catalyzing incident that allows you to personalize the need and make real the consequence of not meeting that need. Inequitable access to technology and reliable internet has been a long-standing educational issue for our School District and many others across the country. Leveraging COVID-19 as an equity call-to-action, we worked closely with the FUND for the School District of Philadelphia to advocate for the right of every SDP student to continue to learn remotely while our school buildings were shuttered. By engaging potential funders, holding press conferences and other communications efforts, we drove a citywide call to action to prevent Philadelphia’s young people from falling further behind by providing a Chromebook and internet access to every student who needed them for remote learning. The response from local businesses and philanthropists was amazing. We received funding to purchase and distribute more than 100,000 Chromebooks to our students. The City of Philadelphia also partnered with local internet providers to launch PHLConnected, an innovative program to connect eligible K–12 student households with access to reliable internet service and digital skills training and support at no cost through June 2022. They also opened Access Centers as safe places for students to go during the day to log in for digital learning.

Another example relates to environmental safety in our school buildings. Our school buildings are 70 years old on average and, like many older buildings across the country, they were constructed using asbestos-containing materials and lead paint. Our district is making steady progress in removing these hazards, as funding allows, but more funding is needed. Over the past several years, we have engaged our elected officials and local Philadelphia community on the need for a significant and dedicated funding source to help accelerate our work. In November 2020, the University of Pennsylvania responded with an unprecedented gift of $100 million over the next 10 years to help improve environmental conditions in our schools. UPenn has always been a great educational partner and supporter of our district, as have other institutions of higher education in the Philadelphia area. We hope this generous gift is the catalyst for even greater levels of support from those who have a vested interest in the educational success of every Philadelphia public school student.

Despite the many challenges our public schools face, one thing is clear: the success of our public schools is vital to our nation. Strong K-12 public schools help build the workforce needed to attract and retain businesses that propel economic growth. They can also help break the cycles of generational poverty that plague many of our urban and rural communities. Thankfully, we are not in this alone. Now more than ever, there are many people ready and willing to help advocate for and support our students and schools. An authentic commitment to strategic engagement and advocacy is key.