09/12/2013 12:45 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

City Schools Are Broke But Can't Be Broken

This summer, I took a trip to Chicago for the very first time. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the city, I wondered why my hometown, Philadelphia, doesn't use its waterfront the way Chicago does. From my tourist view, the city seemed perfect: clean, bright, safe.

On the way to O'Hare Airport to catch our return flight to Philadelphia, however, I heard a familiar reality. Our chatty taxi driver began a monologue on the woes of Chicago's public school system, the third-largest public school system in the country. Financially beleaguered and operating far below its capacity, the district has recently shut down fifty of its public schools. This August, it made the controversial request for charter companies to apply to work in the eleven neighborhoods with overcrowded public schools.

Overcrowded, and yet chronically under-enrolled. It is a perplexing truth in city schools.

"It's a shame," he said. "With all these schools closing, kids have to travel much longer to get to school, and their schools barely have any supplies. How is this supposed to work?"

The short answer is that it doesn't, but it apparently has to.

I told him that the same thing is happening in Philadelphia, where I teach middle school English at a charter school. Having closed twenty-four schools in June, the School District of Philadelphia is attempting not to break its back while juggling a stop-you-in-your-tracks deficit, its basic need for non-instructional support staff and supplies, and the special academic needs of its students who are from low-income families in largely impoverished neighborhoods. Now, the district is in talks with its teacher's union, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, in an attempt to secure concessions from teachers. The talks have not yet rendered a contract.

Although the specifics of Philly's budget crisis are murky at best, the day-to-day reality will become all- too-clear this week. Schools with high numbers of students who have experienced trauma have opened without counselors, or nurses. Some schools lack basic school supplies - textbooks, paper, copier toner, even chairs for students. Educators will inevitably have their hands tied, and with more closures on the horizon for the waning district, their jobs will be on the line in June once more.

Philly and Chicago adults who are invested in public education in some way are stressed. Can you imagine, however, how the children feel?

Since my professional expertise is limited to literary elements, grammar, the five-paragraph essay and the preservation of the delicate 13 year-old ego, I will not offer the pretense of a financial solution for Philadelphia or Chicago, nor will I condemn any stakeholders - the union, the district itself, the board, the parents, and, Lord knows, the teachers. I choose to believe that our goals are similar, if not identical. Nobody wants to hand a subpar school to a first grader and say, "This is what you get because of where and to whom you were born." If I consider the alternative, I can't do what I do anymore.

I will, however, state that children are perceptive. Although they may have never left their city in their young lives, they are well aware that they don't have what others do. My students have not seen the inside of a Lower Merion middle school, a scant 20 minutes away from us, but they know that the inside is different than our school.

"The money's just not there" might work from a financial standpoint, but it is not a sufficient answer for children, so many of whom already hear this as it pertain's to life's basic necessities.

So what do we do? Given the absence of any feasible budget workaround (and I haven't given up all hope of this), the answer is that we talk. Frequently. Incessantly, almost. To anyone who will listen, and even the people who don't. Both Philly and Chicago have a stronghold of educators who have spoken extensively on this subject in the form of protests and hearings; now, we need more conversation, but perhaps with entities other than the districts themselves.

We attempt to secure partnerships with neighboring colleges and universities, who might give us graduate students who can be counseling interns. We talk to community-based organizations who might have extras - extra supplies, extra chairs, extra programs, extra room. We teach educators to utilize fundraising tools like to equip their classrooms when district money falls short. We talk to legislators, to demand a re-evaluation of city property tax systems. We talk to kids. We let them know that their education is a priority for us, that we will go above and beyond, even into our own wallets at times, to make sure they have at least a semblance of what they need to do well in our schools.

Philadelphia and Chicago's students don't perform as well on standardized test as their suburban peers. Their parents, on average, don't bring in as much money. And now, with the catastrophic budget of both districts' public schools, we have formally asked these students to do far more, to overcome academic and socioeconomic obstacles not present in this volume in the suburbs, with much, much less.

Philadelphia and Chicago will benefit in the long run if now-adults secure the futures of young adults, especially those who are currently academically behind their peers and who come from families in poverty.

If we want to be a meritocracy -- our proud claim for centuries now -- then they are the country's most important investment, and they need to be prioritized as such.