Barbara Dowdall SRC testimony transcript – December 15, 2015


Good afternoon. My plan was to address the continuing student toilet crisis in our schools (clearest in my mind is the two, possibly three malfunctioning commodes in a student bathroom next to a lunchroom in a building new in 1958) under your care, but notice of a presentation this evening on the future of Roberts Vaux Jr. High, I mean High School, has diverted my attention, so with your indulgence, I will postpone that topic for another meeting’ though I can provide tonight a link to background information that may help us together to raise our concern for and focus our resources on a feature of school buildings that, though not in the realm of academics, could have a bearing on our students’ better chance of success or perhaps just their having the sense that we adults care about them

Since my May 2014 appeal to prevent the closing of the building where I began my school district career in September of 1974 and for seven years thereafter (before I ceded my right to return in order to take a second, extended maternity leave) was in vain, nevertheless, my affection for the school, its students and staff continues to this day and very evening as I sit with one former colleague and only yesterday assisted another with her donation of her now-deceased public school teacher husband’s aunt’s home library of books by African American authors, dating back to the teens and 1920’s, to the Charles Blockson Collection at Temple University.

The imminent re-opening of Vaux as an innovation high school brings major funds to the event and a quite clearly a sense of excitement to the school administration, yet I feel that attention and even tribute should be paid to, and perhaps even the revival of, some of the ideas, programs, staffing, love and yes, actual innovations from our Vaux Junior High days of yore, here appended and accompanied by the offer of scanning, digitizing and passing on to those involved in this resurgence of a school, pages of the yearbook from the years I served as its faculty co-sponsor. Should the new iteration of Vaux have a professionally-staffed school library, a celebratory initial research project might begin with reference to the school’s namesake, an individual who would truly inspire us today.


My name is Barbara McDowell Dowdall. A member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), I am a retired teacher and English Department Head whose 36 years of experience began at Vaux Junior High in what youwould likely (and Mark Gleason would definitely) call a “failing school” with “low-performing seats.” We had a wonderful alternative learning program with a small class, two teachers and two aides. The students assisted with taking care of children in the school’s day care center. Vaux had two home and school visitors, residents of the community, who kept the lines of communication open and parent and guardian concerns addressed. The faculty included two teachers of art and two music teachers, one vocal and one instrumental. Four counselors guided students as they prepared for high school. Language study included both Spanish and French. A librarian and library assistant welcomed students individually and in classes on a regular basis. A fulltime nurse and peace officer, an office staff of five, two elevator operators, seven non-teaching assistants, a cafeteria staff of twelve, a custodial staff of thirteen, one principal and two vice principals rounded out the adult contingent. Students enjoyed home economics, industrial arts, business and physical education. They assumed leadership in student council; served as library and counselor aides; joined the stage crew, drama, math, tennis, travel and world affairs clubs; served on the yearbook staff; and joined basketball, soccer, softball, swimming, gymnastics and track teams. Oh, and did I mention our three-time national championship chess team? Perhaps our California Achievement Test scores were below average, a research-established function of economic stresses. So the school board kept its experienced, committed teachers in place, and welcomed newly-minted instructors who stayed on to eventually achieve that status themselves. Budget woes grew. Gradually, the staff, the academics, the programs, the extra-curriculars were cut. Even so, the school district maintained its responsibility to administer every school and support every staff, and wherever and whenever possible, provide essential resources to communities in greatest need. Students returning each September found the re-assurance of familiar faces. Staff members knew the students and their histories. Graduates came back to visit the adults who had guided them to share their stories of both struggle and success. Let us reflect on the words of Maya Angelou:     “I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,'” . . . “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And ‘Deep River.’ Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 1/2, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library. … And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.

On one occasion, Angelou compared school librarians to rainbows that shine for many children.  And note the sentiments in a letter to President Obama signed by Angelou and more than 120 other authors and illustrators of children’s books: “Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations.” Do not all our children, in every school, merit these conditions and true keys to success?