Helen Oakes: Philly’s Public Schools’ Biggest Fan

Written by Courtney Smerz on March 3rd, 2011

Just before the winter break, we wrapped up processing at Urban Archives with the Helen Oakes papers.  This was truly an exercise in team processing with Forrest, Megan G., Megan A., Christiana and me contributing to the effort.

Helen Oakes was a pretty remarkable lady who devoted her life’s work to advocating for public education in Philadelphia in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.  She believed that children across the city deserved equal access to education and that the city’s public schools could and should provide it to them — if only they could get their acts together.

Oakes first became interested in the schools in the late 1960s, when she was an active member of the League of Women Voters.  The League conducted a survey of schools which found that schools with a higher percentage of African American students were getting shortchanged when it came to funding.  Angered by this blatant inequality, Oakes launched her newsletter, Oakes’ Newsletter, in 1970, to publicize this and other issues in Philadelphia’s public schools.  The Oakes’ Newsletter was devoted to the discovery and understanding of problems in the school district, of which there were plenty.  Enough, in fact, to keep Oakes writing for nearly twenty years!

Oakes research into public education was relentless.  She investigated the ways in which public education was outright failing the city’s youth, as well as the external forces exacerbating the already taxed school system.  She carefully studied the budget; teacher training; standardized testing and integration.  She investigated programs designed for special needs students and sex education.  She looked at the relationships between education and external issues such as drug use, teen pregnancy, race, poverty and crime–and she published everything in Oakes Newsletter. Oakes wrote to shock her readers and to expose issues in the public schools for sure, but she had a more noble purpose.  She wanted the public schools to be better, and believed that they could be if the school district faced some of the major issues head-on.

A full run of the published newsletter along with her research files are available at Urban Archives. The collection also contains scant files related to her term on the Philadelphia Board of Education in the 1980s.  An outspoken and critical member of the board, Oakes was not asked to serve again after her term expired in 1989.

 

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