Talking education and poverty in Philadelphia with Councilmember-elect Katherine Gilmore Richardson
The youngest woman ever elected to Philadelphia’s City Council has a plan to bring more prosperity to the city by investing more in its youth.
Growing up, Katherine Gilmore Richardson says she had the privilege to attend some of Philadelphia’s most prestigious schools.
For middle school, she got into the extremely competitive Julie R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, and in high school, Gilmore Richardson went to the educational mecca that is the Philadelphia High School for Girls.
Her time at both schools were integral to shaping how she views education today, but it was another experience that put into perspective its importance.
After getting her undergraduate degree in political science from West Chester University, Gilmore Richardson spent two years as a substitute teacher at Overbrook High School.
“It was a life-changing experience,” she said.
Having spent her childhood and adolescence at institutions of excellence within Philadelphia’s educational system, Overbrook was Gilmore Richardson’s first time seeing some of the difficulties facing the city’s schools.
She admits to witnessing things in her classroom that she’d never seen before and found herself visiting students’ houses and buying them uniforms when they couldn’t afford it.
When Gilmore Richardson visited AL DÍA on Dec. 11, she shared a specific story of a student who had trouble staying awake in one of her classes.
“Why are you falling asleep?” she remembered asking him. “Are you not getting enough sleep at night?”
At first, he was resistant to Gilmore Richardson’s daily inquiries, but gave in after a month.
She learned that his exhaustion in her class came from having to stay up at night and protect his mother as she went to buy drugs on the street.
It struck a chord in the young substitute teacher, who was reminded of her own life experience as an adopted child.
“That was so moving to me,” said Gilmore Richardson. “I know, as someone who was adopted at birth, it’s so easy for someone to fall into the systems around us and not have a chance, or an opportunity for a better life expectancy.”
In addition to praising teachers who she says do a job that is often “impossible to do,” Gilmore Richardson acknowledged the diverse backgrounds and experiences each child enters the classroom with in Philadelphia.
“We have to try to be everything we can for those young people,” said Gilmore Richardson. “There’s always more work to be done.”
For her, that work starts by tackling poverty in the city.
In the Fall, City Council launched its Special Commission on Poverty Reduction and Prevention in arguably its most widespread and holistic approach to poverty to date.
Gilmore Richardson said she’s “excited” to be a part of the discussions brought to Council by the Commission, and is specifically focusing on the educational solutions.
Her approach involves making the Philadelphia high school graduate as prepared as possible for university or professional life.
“I learned working at Overbrook that not all of our young people will go to college, but they should be college, or career-ready at graduation,” said Gilmore Richardson
One way she wants to do that, is by committing to put more funding into Philadelphia’s trade schools to make them more accessible.
She also wants to see more connections being made between graduates and the city’s corporate, nonprofit and government sectors to open up further opportunities for sustainable employment.
“We know that our recent job growth has been around low-wage jobs. We have to ensure that we can increase the amount of people working in higher-wage positions,” said Gilmore Richardson. “How we do that is by providing them with the skills needed to serve in those roles.”
In the vein of more government job opportunities, Gilmore Richardson also mentioned a potential preference created for graduates of city trade schools when applying for city jobs.
“We can’t expect our external stakeholders like the corporate community, nonprofits and others to do all of this work alone,” she said.
It all begins on January 6, 2020, when Gilmore Richardson and the rest of City Council's newest members are sworn in at The Met.