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Education activist Helen Gim announces her run for mayor of Philadelphia

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This story has been updated to reflect Helen Gimme’s official announcement that she is running for mayor.

Helen Gim, a prominent Philadelphia education activist whose work has touched on everything from blighted buildings to school funding, has announced she will run for mayor next year.

Gym announced its campaign Wednesday, the day after leaving the city council. She is the fifth council member to resign recently amid speculation that all five will run for mayor in 2023.

Gim, 54, was elected to the council in 2015. A longtime organizer, father of three, and former teacher, she became known as a staunch opponent of state control of the city district and reform strategies initiated by the School Reform Commission to create more charter schools and weaken the teachers’ union.

During the period when Philadelphia Public Schools was under state control, which lasted from 2001 to 2017, she co-founded the activist group Parents united for public education.

In an interview Tuesday, Jim detailed her accomplishments before and after being elected to the board and said it was time for the city and school district to “have a shared mission” around the needs and well-being of young people.

In 2001, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge wanted to turn over control of the Philadelphia district to Edison Schools, at the time the nation’s largest nonprofit school operator. While Edison eventually operated more than 45 schools, opposition from Gym and others turned the plan away for the company to run the entire area. This was one of the vexing issues for Gim, whose daughter was about to enter kindergarten at the time.

“It was clear as day that we had no choice but to change the city’s policy at that point,” she recalled in an interview.

She opposed austerity measures imposed by the School Reform Commission, as well as her efforts to create more charter schools and turn over traditional public schools to charter operators. Eventually, as a councillor, Jim helped bring the area back under local control after 17 years.

“As soon as I came to the city council, I was on a mission to stop the takeover and prove that local control means nurses, counselors, social workers, clean water and special attention to the health and safety of children, especially mental health,” she said.

Her involvement in public education was not limited to the activities of the School Reform Commission. Last year, she joined a contingent of Philadelphia activists who sat in state legislative offices in Harrisburg to demand more money for city schools and adopting a fair education funding formula.

During her tenure on the board, she also spearheaded a school modernization project that, among other things, installed air conditioning in older buildings. She also worked with student activists who demanded hydration stations in every school to provide clean and safe drinking water.

Many schools were “literally falling apart,” she said. She remembered how students at one school told her they were afraid to enter the building. “It’s one thing to look at a school facilities report, it’s another thing to have a child tell you it’s unbearable,” she said.

Beyond purely educational issues, Jim is known for her work on expanding broadband and legislation to provide legal representation to people facing eviction.

“I helped create huge grassroots movements, and a lot of them involved the school system, but it was bigger than schools,” she said. “At the end of the day, it was about fighting the narrative that our communities don’t matter.”

In addition to Gimme, Derek Green, Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, Alan Domb and Cherelle Parker have resigned from the city council and have either announced or hinted at their ambitions to run for mayor in 2023. office.)

City Comptroller Rebecca Rinehart also resigned in preparation for the run, and ShopRite owner Jeff Brown also said he was in the running.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s second and final term ends in January 2024.

Jim was the founder and first editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, which evolved from a quarterly print publication to an online news site. In 2020, Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Dale Mezacapa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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