The Samuel W. Pennypacker Elementary School in West Oak Lane is getting a new lease on life. It now has a full-time music teacher and a revived mentally gifted program —assembly programs are also back. The past year saw a full scale holiday program, a Black History Month assembly, and coming soon, a spring concert. The children participate in the Penn Relays, and some fifth-graders are even taking ballroom dancing.
In Robert Gold’s music classroom, the children were using drum sticks on large colored plastic buckets as they play “pass the bucket.” Yet the music room does have some more conventional equipment thanks to Gold securing a $5,000 grant to supplement his classroom. Now students from kindergarten to sixth grade are all experiencing the interdisciplinary lessons music has to offer.
“This is just a good school,” said Tara Williams, whose twin sons, Jahi and Jahim, are third-graders at Pennypacker. The Learning Key caught up with Williams in the hallway outside the main office. The 2011–2012 school year marks their first year at the school located at the corner of Thouron Avenue and Washington Lane.
“My children used to go to other schools,” she said. “Last year they were at the Kinsey School (also in West Oak Lane). I just find this to be one of the best schools. It has one of the better learning environments, and the teachers are great. I am very pleased with the education the twins are getting.”
For Principal Wendy Baldwin, hearing comments from parents like Williams is why she loves her new job. This is her first year serving as principal. She previously spent a decade working at the George Washington Elementary School in South Philadelphia as a special education teacher. It was in January 2011 that she enrolled in the school district’s administrative training initiative, and by May of last year she had completed the program.
Originally, Baldwin hoped to take her experience in the classroom and other educational positions with her as she became an assistant principal. Yet she soon realized that the success she had in Learning Support and Emotional Support classrooms was a firm foundation to take over the helm at a neighborhood school. So, she accepted the principal’s slot at Pennypacker and began her new job in September.
“Working in special education helps me be effective because I have a clear understanding of differential instruction,” Baldwin said. “I think that there are many strategies that work on different levels. I frequently remind my staff that they should address the children’s strengths.”
Baldwin’s office is adorned with a large-scale, richly-hued globe that has shiny brass trim. It was a gift, she said, from state Rep. Dwight Evans who represents the district where the school sits. In many ways the globe represents the principal’s vision for the school.
“We are really creating an environment where children can become critical thinkers,” Baldwin said. “We are making sure that they are college ready. We know that they must compete in a global society. We are fortunate enough to have made AYP for the last few years, and we do have a student body that comes eager to learn.”
To this end, the students have been taking more trips around the neighborhood as well as to the many cultural venues that a cosmopolitan city like Philadelphia has to offer. There are treks to local museums, concerts and other places of interest. Occasionally the school may welcome a guest speaker.
Yet there is still room for improvement, according to Baldwin. One area that she would like to expand is the community involvement in the school through volunteering and other services. She is also working to encourage more parents to become active with the Pennypacker Home and School Association.
“I envision us connecting more with the faith-based organizations,” Baldwin said. “I would also like people from this community to come into the school to start a mentoring program. I think it is important that the community and school partner in this way.”
For 11-year-old Tiani Fitts of West Oak Lane, who transferred to Pennypacker this school year, from Hatfield Elementary School, it’s been a blessing. Tiani is quick to point out that before coming to Pennypacker she was a bit reserved and withdrawn. Because of the nurturing environment she has been able to come out of her shell.
In fact, Tiani is one of the more articulate members of the Leaders of the Pack club. She, along with several other fifth-graders, was recommended for the club because of their academic prowess, citizenship, good behavior and leadership potential. An aspiring singer, Fitts feels that Pennypacker “makes every student special” because of the quality teachers.
“I think this is a place that helps you to do the right thing,” said Jamar Simpson of West Oak Lane, another member of the club. “This is a great place to learn.”
Teacher LaTwyne Wise is the special education liaison and mentors the Leaders of the Pack club. She meets with the students every Wednesday and Friday. Together they’ve taken trips to see the Philadelphia Dance Company, also known as Philadanco, as well as tours of the campuses of Temple and Cheyney universities.
“We take the students who show the potential to lead and show them that they have choices in life,” said Wise. “We want them to know that academics is important and so is discipline, but it takes more than that to be successful. We want them to realize they must be positively driven. So even though they have aspirations like being an architect, to a pediatrician, we basically show them that relating to others is important.”
Rounding out the school environment is Mrs. Campbell, a mainstay in the office. Her official title is “school liaison” but basically it is a “catch all” type of position. She fills in the gaps that are needed whether it’s addressing a truant student, coordinating a fundraising drive to fill in the budgetary gaps, or ensuring that those who come into the building are directed to correct place.
“You can’t have a success school without someone like me,” said Campbell. “I am like the universal remote control because you have to have someone who is available for the parents, the students, the teachers and the principal.”
Baldwin concurred. She said that all parts of the puzzle at Pennypacker make it work for its nearly 500 students.
“We are always growing and trying new things,” Baldwin said. “We’re good and we’re always getting better. I am always looking at ways to be even more successful. It’s nice to make AYP each year, but I think it’s important to keep raising our standards. With exceptional students and staff, I think we’ll continue to do just that.”
Thanks to a new wrinkle added to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Program, parents and caregivers will have even more options when they decide to transfer a student out of a school on the persistently violent or underachieving schools list.
According to PDE Secretary Ron Tomalis, every school not currently on the list of low-achieving schools can now apply to be a receiver school for those wishing to transfer. With 414 schools throughout the commonwealth — more than 130 in Philadelphia alone — on that list, it is conceivable that thousands of students will be seeking a transfer.
School principals can apply via a link on the department’s website.
“The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program is an example of a public/private partnership where the business community recognizes a need in our communities and schools and steps up to meet that need,” Tomalis said. “It is my hope that Pennsylvania’s high-quality schools will now step up to do their part to ensure that every student is provided with a world-class education.”
According to the PDE, Students who reside within the attendance boundaries of one of the 414 schools on the low-achieving list are eligible to apply for a scholarship if their household’s annual income does not exceed $60,000, plus $12,000 for each dependent member of the household. Recipients of a scholarship may apply the funds to tuition costs and school-related fees at another public school outside of their resident district, or a nonpublic school that has signed up to receive students. Funds may not be used to attend a career and technology center, or brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools.
Pennsylvania businesses that donate to opportunity scholarship organizations are eligible for a tax credit through the program.
“This historic program cannot succeed without the participation of Pennsylvania’s best public and nonpublic schools that are willing to open their doors to the students trapped in educational entities which are not meeting their academic needs,” Tomalis said.
“Pennsylvania is home to many extraordinary public and nonpublic schools. Thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program and the generosity of the business community, eligible students in low-achieving schools can now experience the very best educational opportunities the commonwealth has to offer.”
The tax program has had a fair amount of controversy attached to it. Many critics, including the influential School Boards Association of Pennsylvania, panned the program as a “stealth voucher program,” and state Representative Dwight Evans — usually a staunch proponent of school choice — voiced concerns about the plan’s true nature, and funding of its expansion.
“It’s actually disappointing, because I really thought more attention should be paid to schools that need real help,” Evans said, noting that the financial aspect of the plan has yet to be properly vetted. “The state released its report, with schools like Martin Luther King Jr. High School and Germantown High School on it, and to me, they’re basically taking that [helping] element from schools that really need it.”
He touched the lives of thousands, and it was in his honor that hundreds gathered to say farewell to “a scholar with an African mission.” The funeral of Dr. Edward W. Robinson, Jr. was held Friday morning at the church in which he was born and raised, the A.M.E. Union Church, in the heart of North Philadelphia.
Just outside the church, a dozen drummers of all ages played in the midst of an oppressive heat wave. All morning, city dignitaries streamed through the church to pay respects to the educator and his family.
While his body laid in repose, images of Robinson in various stages of his life played in the background, as ushers carried baskets of fans and circulated through the aisles with bottles of cold water. The several hundred gathered fanned themselves endlessly as they comforted their hearts in the words offered by friends, colleagues and family members during the two-and-a-half hour service.
Robinson's casket, draped in a United States flag, was flanked by floral displays in the colors of the Pan-African flag — red, black and green — with one especially stunning arrangement forming the shape of the continent of Africa.
Proclamations were read from Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, State Senator Leanna Washington, and Congressman Chaka Fattah, along with resolutions from the Institute for the Preservation of Youth, the Paul Robeson House, the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Chaney University Alumni Association and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP. Also noted in the audience were music producer and educator Kenny Gamble, producer Bob Lott, activist Pam Africa, Judge Thomasina Tynes, Rep. Dwight Evans and Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams.
Remarks were offered from every branch of Robinson's life - from political to civic to personal. Speakers included Christine Thomas Wiggins, Founder of IMHOTEP Charter School; Ali and Helen Salahuddin, founders of the D'ZERT Club; Activist Michael Coard, Esq.; African-American scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante; Cody Anderson, former WDAS General manager and Dr. Mildred Johnson of Virginia State University, and Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia. “Dr. Robinson served his generation in an outstanding manner,” noted Goode. “The question is, who is going to serve this generation?”
“A great soul has passed this way,” said Asante. “A great man has lived among us.”
The amazing life that Robinson had lived and shared with those closest to him was obvious in the various titles accorded him: father, grandfather, great-grand-father, great-great grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, and most importantly, husband.
Robinson's widow Harriet eschewed the podium, instead choosing to stand next to the casket as she recited a poem while holding the arm of her beloved husband of 41 years. “I wanted you for life, you and me in the wind. I never thought there would come a time that our story would end. ... Maybe all I need to know and if I listen to my heart, I'll hear your laughter once more. And so I’ve got to say I'm just glad you came my way. It's not easy to say goodbye.”
Phila. School District, Pa. conduct policies may have been violated
It’s too early to predict the impact of a damning new report on the role of former SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and state Rep. Dwight Evans in steering a contract to run Martin Luther King High School away from parents’ choice of school operator to one that they both had a deep connection to, but one thing seems certain — scrutiny of the School Reform Commission will increase.
The specter of criminal charges also hovers in the background.
“There needs to be some fundamental changes in how the District is administered and run,” said state Rep. Michael McGeehan, a vocal Philadelphia School District critic. “This is just the latest revelation about how dysfunctional the system has become.”
State Rep. Ron Waters went a step further, saying that he would support a deeper investigation into how the District awards all of its contracts, and make an effort to remove politics from the process.
“There are other things that might have happened too that need to be looked at,” Waters said, adding, “I hope that there is not a problem, because Philadelphia doesn’t need that.”
On Thursday afternoon, the city’s Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman released the results of her investigation into Archie and Evans’ role in securing a contract for Foundations Inc., a New Jersey based non-profit, to operate Martin Luther King High School. The contract went to Foundations despite the fact that the school’s advisory committee recommended a Georgia based company, Mosaica, to run the school.
The document sums up the role of both men at its conclusion.
“Archie’s and Evans’s actions in this matter have compromised the School District of Philadelphia’s ability to secure parent involvement in their children’s schools, to make decisions according to a fair process and to garner public confidence in those decisions.”
At its heart, the report suggests that both men violated the District — and, perhaps, the state’s — ethics policy.
How that would affect Archie is unclear. He stepped down as SRC chair Monday.
At the very least, the report could spur the city to push for more ethics training for SRC appointees as part of its oversight.
“That is a distinct possibility,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald.
In the case of Evans, though, it could mean a state investigation.
Robin Hittie, chief counsel with the State Ethics Commission, would not comment specifically on the ramifications of Markam’s report. However, speaking in broad terms she said that for an ethics violation to occur a financial benefit has to be established.
“Under the Ethics Act, for a conflict of interest to be established, a public official or public employee must either have used the authority of his public position or confidential information he received by being in that position for a private financial benefit to himself, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated,” Hittie said. “To establish that a public official or employee is associated with the business, it must be shown that he, or a member of his immediate family, is a director, officer, owner or employee or has a financial interest in the business.”
Penalties for ethics violations varied, Hittie said, and ranged from fines to criminal charges.
“The Ethics Act provides both financial penalties and criminal penalties,” Hittie said. “The State Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction to impose criminal penalties.”
Any criminal charges would have to be brought before a court, which would impose penalties.
Both Evans and Archie had financial relationships with Foundations.
Archie’s ties are less clear than Evans’. On March 16, he recused himself from a vote over the future of MLK High, citing the fact that Duane Morris had done business with Foundations.
In a statement released Thursday, he said that neither he nor Duane Morris had represented the firm since 2002.
Evans’ ties are well documented in campaign finance forms, which show he has accepted campaign donations from Foundations Inc. and its top officials. A routine Google search turns up donations totaling more than $63,000 since 2000.
Reimbursement programs boost college enrollment for Black students
At least according to one in-depth study, the controversial school voucher program — the initiative that allows parents and caregivers the option of transferring their student from a low-performing or persistently dangerous school to a better one, and reimbursing them the costs of such a transfer — has proved to be a success.
The findings included in the study, “The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York City,” — authored by Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson via a collaboration between the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institute and Harvard University’s Kennedy School Program on Education Policy and Governance — will lend credence to the arguments put forth by proponents of the voucher system here, since New York City’s public school network shares many similarities to the School District of Philadelphia.
In Pennsylvania, legislators have made it much easier to apply for and receive vouchers, as Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Ron Tomalis recently announced several methods in which parents can obtain the voucher. State Rep. Dwight Evans has also been a longtime proponent of school choice, and has supported the voucher initiative for nearly two decades.
“In the first study using a randomized experiment to measure the impact of school vouchers on college enrollment, we examine the college-going behavior through 2011 of students who participated in a voucher experiment as elementary school students in the late 1990s,” read, in part, the summary of the study. “We find no overall impacts on college enrollments but we do find large, statistically significant positive impacts on the college going of African-American students who participated in the study. Our estimates indicate that using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African Americans by 24 percent.”
This study used a data set provided by the New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation Program, which in 1997 began to cover $1,400 scholarships for 1,000 low-income/at-risk families with children entering public schools. Families could use those scholarships to attend any private school within New York City.
The average annual cost of attending a NYC-based Catholic school is $1,728, according to the study; that scholarship would cover more than 70 percent of the base tuition.
“A voucher offer is shown to have increased the overall enrollment rate of African Americans by 7.1 percentage points, an increase of 20 percent. If the offered scholarship was actually used to attend private school, the impact on African-American college enrollment is estimated to be 8.7 percentage points, a 24 percent increase,” read the study’s summation. “Similar results are obtained for full-time college enrollment. Among African Americans, 26 percent of the control group attended college full-time at some point within three years of expected high-school graduation. The impact of an offer of a voucher was to increase this rate by 6.4 percentage points, a 25 percent increment in full-time college enrollment. If the scholarship was used to attend a private school, the impact was about 8 percentage points, an increment of about 31 percent.”
The study also looked at the African-American educational landscape without the voucher program, and the numbers were sobering. Only 3 percent of all African-American students who did not use a voucher attended a selective four-year degree granting program, but that number would have jumped to 6.9 percent if those students chose to use the voucher.
The report found there were no significant gains amongst Hispanic students who utilized the vouchers, with the study proposing that other mitigating factors were involved in the disparity in voucher use between African-American and Hispanic students.
“We find suggestive evidence that educational and religious reasons may explain the different findings for African-American and Hispanic students. Although it would be incorrect to say that educational objectives were not uppermost in the minds of respondents from both ethnic groups,” read the study. “African-American students were especially at risk of not going on to college, and families sought a private school — even one outside their religious tradition — that would help their child overcome that disadvantage. Hispanic students were less at risk of not enrolling in college and likely sought a voucher for some combination of religious and educational benefits.”
Officials with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national non-profit education think tank with offices here and in six other cities, praised the study, noting that it reflects the need for the further investment of resources in Black education.
“This study is showing America what we’ve known for years — that school voucher programs work when they are designed and managed correctly,” said Black Alliance for Educational Options Board Chairman Dr. Howard Fuller. “And they create pathways for young Black children to attend high-performing schools that they otherwise would not have the opportunity to attend.”
Leroy Nunery seeks continued test score growth, better rapport with union
In a wide-ranging meeting with The Philadelphia Tribune earlier this week, acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery spoke optimistically about his future with the Philadelphia School District, enthusiastically about getting students up to speed in a digital age, with trepidation about the relationship between the district and the city’s teachers’ union, and not at all about his role in the Martin Luther King High School quagmire.
The runner-up to former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for the job in 2008, Nunery, who has lived and worked in the city for the last 13 years, said if he does not succeed in his present job, there is no need to even think about leading the country’s eighth-largest school district.
“I’m not going to put any further thought into it,” Nunery said. “If I don’t do the job that I’m tasked with doing today, then it won’t matter in three or four months, so that’s where I am.
“Do I believe I have the qualifications? Yes,” said Nunery, adding that he has not spoken with Mayor Michael Nutter about the job. “I’ve already been vetted through the process once. I’ve been in this seat and, quite frankly, I’m doing my old job as deputy superintendent in the current job as acting superintendent at the same time.”
Nunery, who served as Ackerman’s deputy for 14 months before she agreed to a $905,000 buyout of her contract in August, knows that there will be a national search to fill the position.
He does, however, think that he has shown the commitment required to do the job. For years he worked with Edison Schools in New York, but continued to raise his family here.
“I’ve been around a lot of folks, from labor union heads to presidents of universities, community leader and public officials,” Nunery said.
“That doesn’t mean that those things are going to buffer me, but at least I know my way around town. It’s not starting from scratch; it’s more about having a running start and there are some real advantages to that. But if I don’t get the superintendent’s job, if I decide that I’m interested in it, I’ll still be in education because this is what I’ve been called to do. As for the national search, the whole idea of looking for the best talent is something that the city is owed.”
Nunery spoke glowingly about the smooth start to the school year. However, he acknowledged that the budget cuts — the result of the effort to close the $680 million budget gap — have left the district with a skeleton staff. Cuts have reduced staff at central headquarters on Broad Street by 50 percent.
Overall, the district staff, according to Nunery, has been reduced by 30 percent.
Since schools opened last month, Nunery has busied himself by “getting out to as many schools as possible in the community, meeting with business and community leaders.”
Whether or not Nunery ultimately becomes the superintendent, the disparity and apparent inequity in the awarding of contracts to city businesses will continue to be an issue. As recently as 2003, in an overwhelmingly African-American school district, minority and women-owned businesses just got 2 percent of the pie. An anti-discrimination policy adopted that year boosted that number to 27 percent in 2010. However, fewer than half of those dollars went to African-American contractors.
Nunery said that African-Americans must do a better job of providing the goods and services that the school district needs. He used as an example the purchasing of textbooks, saying that not a lot of African-American companies sell text books.
In the past, African-American companies, according to Nunery, have benefitted in areas of providing social and support services. But in order to receive a larger piece of the pie, Nunery said, businesses will have to provide the services that the budget-strapped district requires.
“There will be more opportunities in construction, retrofitting buildings and things of that nature. That is where you are going to have more opportunities. We have got to turn some of these buildings into more energy-efficient buildings. So there are going to be a lot of opportunities for local businesses.”
Although Nunery says the district is not where it wants to be in terms of graduation rates and improving academic performance, it can point to nine straight years of rising test scores.
Nunery says this is not enough. He said that too many children are graduating from schools — not just in Philadelphia, but all over the country — needing remedial help once they get to college. He referred to a recent conversation with a local administrator in which he was told that three-fourths of the students coming out the school district need remedial assistance, mostly, he says, in technical areas.
“We have to get our kids up to speed in the areas of science, technology, math and science so that the district can be more market responsive,” he said. “We want our children to be more digitally proficient. If that is going to happen, the teachers are going to require more training in that area. It’s that simple.”
Nunery also hopes to develop a better working relationship with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He knows that the union does not favor teacher evaluations — the city’s union chose not to participate in the state’s pilot program.
However, Gov. Tom Corbett, in releasing his education agenda earlier this week, highlighted improved standards in teacher evaluations as one of his main goals.
“This is coming, the whole idea of teacher evaluations.” said Nunery, adding that he has had a number of good conversations with union boss Jerry Jordan. “The conversation for us is about getting both sides on the same side.”
What isn’t coming any time soon from Nunery is an explanation of what he meant when describing a meeting about Martin Luther King High School becoming a charter school as being like a scene from “The Godfather.”
Nunery attended the meeting — along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, former School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie and Mosaica Turnaround Partners President John Porter. Mosaica had been chosen to manage King over Evans’ charter partner, Foundations Inc., just hours earlier.
Mosaica backed out following that meeting, King never became a charter, and last month a scathing report out of the mayor’s office determined that Archie’s and Evans’ actions were inappropriate.
“What I said is in the report,” said Nunery, refusing further comment.
The Parkway Central Library has opened the doors of its newly restored Philbrick Hall.
The hall, which was formerly known as the Philbrick Popular Library, houses the library’s most popular collections of contemporary fiction, nonfiction and DVDs.
When library officials conducted a study more than a year ago they realized that more space was needed in the building.
“What we discovered at that time was only about 34 percent of this building was accessible to the public. The goal of the restoration of this building is to make much more space accessible,” said Siobhan A. Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Due to the restoration of the hall, made possible by support from the Annenberg Foundation, an additional 2,500 square feet of new public space is now available.
As a part of the 9-month renovation project, the original marble floors were fully restored and new seating, shelving, technology spaces and window treatments were added. The intricate plaster ceiling was fully renewed, and energy efficient lighting was installed — inspired by some of the historic building’s original fixtures.
The hall is now home to a new Teen Center, which includes a digital learning lab.
The hall’s renovation marks the completion of the first phase of Building Inspiration: Enhancing the Parkway Central Campus, a $175 million multi-phase project that aims to restore the branch’s building and expand the library’s campus.
“It’s going to transform this building into a very welcoming, modern, 21st-century library,” Reardon says of the project.
Under the project’s second phase, the building’s top floor will be fully restored. The project calls for the restoration of the Skyline room, new bathrooms and renovated kitchen space. The renovated kitchen facilities will enable the library to offer cooking classes to the public.
“When you’re low-literate, one of the importance ways you can come into literacy is through cooking,” Reardon said, noting that reading recipes can help increase literacy and math skills.
“We want to attempt a different way of introducing people to strong literacy skills, and try to help with the literacy problems that confound this city.”
The branch’s Rare Book Room is also slated for expansion, which enables the library to increase its storage capabilities of rare collections.
Feds could expand fraud probe of Kobie West
Federal investigators appear to be poring over the business dealings of insurance executive Kobie T. West in an effort to expand an investigation of fraud that started with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
The revelation emerged last week in federal court when Judge Joel H. Slomsky, who serves in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, spoke from the bench during a plea hearing for West.
Slomsky referred to a confidential plea agreement entered by West on May 18, in which West told federal investigators that he was “conspiring with another person to provide bribes and kickbacks to persons, including public officials known to the U.S. government, in order to maintain business for West Insurance.”
The judge later added that West was involved in “three to four other areas of cooperation with the government.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said she could not comment on, or even confirm the existence of, such an investigation.
“Everything in the Kobie West case is under seal,” said spokeswoman Patty Hartman. “So, there is nothing public and the practice is, in general, for investigations we don’t comment, confirm or deny.”
However, a source described as a “business acquaintance” of West’s said the insurance broker had deep political connections in the city and that reporters might be surprised at some of the names that emerged from “the shakeup” — hinting that federal authorities have expanded their probing beyond the PHA contracts.
The source declined to elaborate or speak on the record.
West’s company, the West Insurance Agency, a minority-owned firm, did much of its business through political contacts with public agencies.
According to a recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, West and his father, the firm’s founder Bernard West, were major political donors, contributing $95,000 to Pennsylvania politicians between 2000 and 2009.
The biggest beneficiary of the Wests’ largesse was state Rep. Dwight Evans, who received more than $38,000 from the father and son while he was the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Other powerful politicians who received money from the pair were: former Gov. Ed Rendell, who received $16,500; former mayor John Street, to whom the pair gave $8,250; and Mayor Nutter, who received $5,000. Two disgraced former legislators also received cash: state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who got $4,500, and former House Speaker John M. Perzel, who received $5,000.
It is not the first time West’s business practices have been called into question. West was also named in the federal investigation at City Hall during Street’s tenure as mayor.
That investigation ended with the indictment of the late Ronald White, a friend of Street’s, and the conviction of former City Treasurer Corey Kemp.
On May 18, West pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
He told federal officials that he, with the help of accomplice inside the PHA, created a fake invoice of $2,141,523 for worker’s compensation coverage, then included a commission of $181,202.
A senior vice president at the West Insurance Agency, Edgar Bridges, has been sentenced to two years of probation for tax evasion as part of the investigation into the kickback scheme. He took “bonuses” totaling $65,000 from West while working at PHA and failed to report it on his income tax returns.
Bridges was sentenced last week by Slomsky. In addition to probation, he was fined $5,000.
In March, New Jersey Controller A. Matthew Boxer accused Tribune’s CEO and President Robert W. Bogle, a member of the Delaware River Port Authority’s board from 1997 to 2011, of steering authority business to West’s insurance firm, where Bogle was also a board member. He accused Bogle of steering a no-show contract to West.
The report quoted an email from William Graham of the Graham Company, the DRPA’s Pennsylvania insurance broker of record to Willis Holding Group, its New Jersey counterpart.
“Bob Bogle … and the Board of the DRPA expects these commissions to be paid to the West Agency, or another select MBE (Minority Business Enterprise).”
Bogle pointed to the report, quoting it “or another select MBE” and added, “Bogle never said a word about West.”
The company received $684,254 in commissions, but Boxer’s office was unable to determine what, if any services it provided.
Last Wednesday — the day before New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a controversial ban on the retail sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in the Big Apple — a coalition of community activists, health care policy advocates and concerned citizens participated in a national conference call sponsored by the group Local to Global Advocates for Justice to discuss the nutrition crisis that continues to plague communities of color.
The call — which attracted participants from cities stretching from Oakland, Calif., to Washington D.C. — offered a platform for representatives of the so-called Food Sovereignty Movement to share stories and brainstorm new strategies for retaking control of the dietary choices in their communities.
Jackie Byers — director of the Oakland-based Black Organizing Project — hosted the call. Byers — who has worked for more than 16 years advocating for a variety of social justice issues and was formerly the associate director of the Center for Third World Organizing — says it’s time for people of color to assert their moral authority over the corporations that are destroying their communities by flooding them with foods that are high in fat, high in sugar and lacking nutritional value.
“Across the country our children, Black children, are under a profound nutritional deficit,” she said. “The food system that’s feeding them, that’s feeding us, is not a wholesome, vibrant, healthy food system that promotes our health and well being; it’s promoting caloric overload, it’s promoting not only obesity, but chronic conditions that are reducing our quality of life and our longevity.”
Since the term was first coined in the 1990s — originally to address the struggles faced by peasant farmers in the developing world — Food Sovereignty has grown to encompass a whole range of strategies for promoting agriculture and nutritional health in low-income, and in the U.S., predominantly African-American communities. The movement represents a unified grassroots response to America’s unprecedented obesity epidemic, which leads to hundreds of thousands of life-threatening diagnoses each year, and recently overtook smoking as the nation’s leading preventable cause of death.
More Americans are obese today than at any time in our country’s history; and no population has been hit harder than African Americans. Black Americans are now 1.4 times more likely than whites to be obese. According to the U.S. Office of Minority Health, a whopping four out of five African-American women are obese or overweight, and while Black men fare slightly better, they still outrank all other ethnic groups in rates of obesity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that weight-related diseases are plaguing Black communities at alarming rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, compared to non-Hispanic white adults, the risk of diagnosed diabetes is 77 percent higher among non-Hispanic Blacks, and African Americans are more than two times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from the disease. African Americans also suffer from a higher incidence of certain diet-related cancers and hypertension than whites, and are less likely to have their high blood pressure under control.
In an effort to address the crisis, in February 2010, Michelle Obama — who has made obesity a cornerstone of her tenure as first lady — joined Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Philadelphia to introduce the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a $400 million commitment to provide dietary support to Americans living in so-called “food deserts” where access to healthy and affordable food is severely lacking.
The initiative provides support for a range of programs by offering technical assistance to community development organizations; federal tax credits to groups that promote healthy eating; and loans, loan guarantees and grants to spark investments in affected communities.
A month after the first lady’s visit, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health launched “Get Healthy Philly” with help from the CDC and a variety of nonprofit organizations and private institutions, including The Food Trust, a local whole foods advocacy group. The federally funded program is a multi-pronged effort to decrease smoking rates in the city and promote healthy lifestyle choices, including good eating habits.
According to Dr. Giridhar Mallya — the director of policy and planning for the Department of Public Health — a large part of the program involves broadening access to wholesome foods.
“I think oftentimes we think about people’s nutritional habits and whether they are active as individual decisions, but people’s decisions are really influenced in pretty significant ways by the environments in which they live,” said Dr. Mallya. “So right now many Philadelphians, particularly low-income Philadelphians and racial minorities, live in environments that make unhealthy food choices very easy; they’re cheap and they are heavily marketed, while healthy foods are either difficult to find or not affordable for folks with limited income.”
Brian Lang, the director of The Food Trust’s Supermarket Campaign says food scarcity has gotten worse for low-income consumers over the past three decades as grocery stores have become more scarce.
“Starting about 20 or 30 years ago supermarkets began following their customers out of the cities and into the suburbs,” he said. “Meanwhile the average grocery store has gotten a lot larger and as a result they have gotten a lot more expensive to build and fewer and farther between. That makes it a challenge to get to a store if you’re somebody that has transportation problems or that doesn’t own a car.”
“Some supermarket owners have commented that in inner city locations they are just not making quite as much money as they would in more affluent suburban areas where land is easier to come by and people have more disposable income,” he added.
The fallout has been dramatic. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million, mostly low-income Americans have no supermarket or large grocery store within a mile of their homes, forcing them to rely disproportionately on convenience stores and fast food restaurants to meet much of their dietary needs. Meanwhile, research has shown that people who lack access to supermarkets are 46 percent more likely to eat unhealthy diets.
The Food Trust has long been at the forefront of tackling the problem. In 2004 — with the support of Rep. Dwight Evans and help from The Reinvestment Fund and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition — the group launched the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, an $85 million statewide public-private partnership that has become a model for communities nationwide committed to combating obesity and improving food access. According to the group, the program has helped sponsor 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties.
Mallya calls ensuring access to healthy foods “a big part of the puzzle” when it comes to reversing the downward spiral of nutritional access in cities like Philadelphia. Over the last two years the city has recruited more than 630 corner stores into its “Healthy Bodegas” program, which seeks to replace standard corner store fare with more produce and fresh foods.
According to Mallya, under the program the city offers a small financial incentive to owners who agree to add at least four new healthy products to their inventory, use marketing materials to direct consumers to healthy alternatives and undergo training to learn how to price and sell wholesome foods. Since 2010 the city has also helped launch ten new farmers markets in low-income communities including Norris Square in North Philadelphia and Point Breeze in South Philly. To provide a financial incentive to ensure people patronize them, the city is jointly sponsoring a program with The Food Trust called “Philly Food Bucks,” which offers consumers $2.00 in coupons for every $5.00 they spend using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/food stamp benefits at participating farmers markets.
“That program alone has helped increase SNAP redemptions at farmers markets around the city by 400 percent,” said Mallya. “I think it’s a great example that people will healthy food if you make it available and affordability. You just have to make sure people are equipped to do it.”
The city has set a five-year goal of ensuring that at least 25 percent of Philadelphians live within a half-mile of a supermarket, farmers market or healthy corner store and hopes to reduce by 10 percent children’s consumption of junk foods from corner bodegas.
Even with healthy access, however, eating right ultimately comes down to choice. And experts agree that’s a bit tougher to influence. Food choices are often as much a product of culture as they are a source of nourishment. In her 2004 study: “Factors influencing food choices, dietary intake, and nutrition related attitudes among African Americans,” Delores James — a professor of behavioral health at the University of Florida — noted that among some Black populations, where high salt, high fat foods are a cultural norm, there remains a “general perception that ‘eating healthfully’ [means] giving up part of their cultural heritage and trying to conform to the dominant culture.”
To break the cycle of bad eating the city has been partnering with schools and community centers to remove unhealthy options from school cafeterias educate children on proper nutrition with the hope they will bring those lessons back to their parents.
The good news is these efforts appear to be paying off. Last August The New York Times published a piece by food writer Mark Bittman that called Philadelphia “among the most progressive cities in the country” for promoting healthy food choices and a model for other cities to follow. It might be too soon to see the impact on the bodies of our citizens, but if these efforts keep up, the City of Brotherly Love is likely to shed a few pounds in the coming years.
For more information on the Department of Public Health’s efforts to reduce obesity in Philadelphia, visit: www.foodfitphilly.org.
To find a farmers market in your neighborhood, visit: www.thefoodtrust.org/php/programs/phillyfoodbucks.php.
Dawn Carter of Mount Airy may be legally blind, but that certainly does not dampen her vision for improving her neighborhood. In fact, she and her husband Clarence, who is also visually challenged, made it to the grand opening of Philadelphia’s first Obama for America field office in West Oak Lane on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
She returned to the new location for a phone bank a week later on Wednesday Feb. 22 which was preceded by a pep talk from Congressman Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Whip on ways to ensure that Northwest Philadelphia and other communities remain viable.
At both events one could find Dawn Carter signing in those who were among the more than 300 who showed for the event. Those in attendance for the Feb. 15 ribbon cutting included Mayor Michael Nutter, state Rep. Dwight Evans of West Oak Lane and OFA regional field director Philip Gaskin. Also present were guest speakers Stefanie Brown, OFA national African-American outreach director and Michael Blake, OFA deputy operation vote director.
Yet most of those on hand were just local community residents, like Dawn Carter, who have no official titles and just want to volunteer in their community. Carter, who has been volunteering with OFA since last summer, is excited to have a home base for the team she works with.
“The well-attended opening gave me more energy and drive to continue,” said Carter. “It was so enthusiastic and upbeat. I thought it was just fabulous how people came together. I thought all the speakers were great.
“I really thought that Michael Blake coming in from the national campaign was great. He was just awesome. He really got the crowd energized, and everyone got charged up listening to him. It was just a good night, and I really enjoyed the experience. More importantly though, I believe in the positive changes that have taken place,” Carter said.
In his remarks, Mayor Nutter stressed how President Obama’s initiatives kept the city afloat despite its own budget crisis. Evans, too, spoke about the importance of grassroots organizing in taking ownership of the campaign to improve the quality of life in Northwest Philadelphia. While Brown shared her personal story about getting involved in NAACP voter drives at a young age, Blake pumped up the crowd with his energetic Biblical references to the president’s national and global vision.
OFA previously held the grand opening for its Center City headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. The organization has been organizing in the state since early 2009. For the past three years it has been boosting the number of Democrats statewide through voter registration and voter education, and by embarking on various field organizing efforts.
In addition to field offices the campaign launched a nationwide “Truth Team” initiative. The goals are to show how the president has kept his word, to keep the GOP honest, and to respond to untruthful attacks on the president’s record with the truth, according to OFA.
Among those who are members of the new Truth Team is Nutter. “President Obama’s achievements should speak for themselves, but they won’t,” said Nutter. “That’s why this work to engage our supporters is so essential. We’ve got to stand up for the president, let our friends and family knows what we’ve achieved these past three years and help supporters get the word out.”