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Full disclosure about this issue’s cover story, “Doomsday in the District”: When it comes to Philadelphia’s embattled public schools, the Gazette staff has a fair amount of skin in the game.

My younger daughter is at the Albert M. Greenfield School; my older one at CAPA, the high school for creative and performing arts. Our art director’s son graduated from CAPA last year, after attending the Penn Alexander School, where associate editor Trey Popp’s son is now a kindergartener. (Trey reported and wrote the story with some help from frequent contributor and sports blogger Dave Zeitlin C’03.)

We’re not alone of course. Penn’s alumni community is a global one, but a big chunk of it lives and works in Philadelphia. All of us have a stake in the quality of the city’s schools, whether our children attend them or not. And many alumni are actively involved—as parents and advocates, teachers, principals, and administrators—in working (albeit sometimes at cross-purposes) to make them better.

And while some of Philadelphia’s problems are unique(ly bad), its history also holds lessons for other urban school districts. Inadequate funding, lack of political leadership, administrative corruption and incompetence, and poor labor relations have long been features of that history, but the lead-up to the current school year represented a turn for the even worse—“doomsday,” that is—as the district faced a projected $300 million deficit. Only a last-minute infusion of a portion of this money allowed the schools to open at all, which some argued shouldn’t have happened without more funding.

Our article sketches in this depressing picture (which, at this writing, shows little prospect of changing next year), and then turns more hopefully to the stories of a number of Graduate School of Education and other alumni laboring inside and outside the system.

(We’ve written before about the University’s support for Penn Alexander and other neighborhood schools, and will again, but that’s not the focus this time. There’s a summary of those efforts here, though.)

Two other features travel far from Philadelphia.

In “Walking with Mandela,” senior editor Samuel Hughes interviews Rita Barnard, a Penn English professor who grew up in South Africa. Barnard was about to sign off on the proofs for her new book—The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela—when news of his death was announced in December.

Barnard reflects on Mandela’s unique qualities as man and myth, and also talks about her childhood in an Afrikaans family in Pretoria and her mixed emotions about missing the era of Mandela’s release and presidency as she toiled on the tenure track at Penn. Also included are excerpts from the introduction, and an afterword Barnard wrote addressing Mandela’s funeral ceremonies and the global outpouring in response to his death.

“John Jackson, Ethnography, and the Hebrew Israelites,” by frequent contributor and arts blogger Molly Petrilla C’06, describes the anthropologist, filmmaker, and PIK professor’s decade-plus studying the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, a group of African-American expatriates who have lived in Israel since the 1960s.

Jackson’s new book about them also examines the nature of ethnography in the digital age, where tech-savvy subjects can shape their own stories—and respond to those of their ethnographers.

Returning to Philadelphia, though of the 19th and early 20th centuries, in “Lea’s Legacy,” Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 reveals the man behind the library. Before he bequeathed to Penn the books and furnishings that are still preserved on Van Pelt’s sixth floor, Henry Charles Lea lived a full life as a brilliant scholar, successful businessman, and leading civic reformer—and, Dennis suggests, probably a pretty decent father, too.

—John Prendergast C’80

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