PHILADELPHIA – When Mitt Romney came to an inner-city charter school here Thursday to promote his new education agenda, he received something of a history lecture about the persecution of blacks in America and the struggles of African American children to meet the academic achievements of their white counterparts.
Seeking to broaden his appeal heading into the general election, Romney was venturing for his first time in this campaign into an impoverished black neighborhood to hear the concerns of local educators and community leaders. But here in the streets of West Philadelphia, the emotion surrounding his contest with the nation’s first black president was raw, as dozens of neighborhood residents shouted, “Get out, Romney, get out!”
Romney arrived at Universal Bluford Charter School aboard his logo-emblazoned campaign bus and began his morning visit by meeting school and civic leaders at a formal roundtable session. “I come to learn, obviously, from people who are having experiences that are unique and instructive,” he said.
Kenny Gamble, who founded the West Philadelphia school last year, told Romney that his school’s top priority is improving the education of African Americans and closing the achievement gap between blacks and whites. Gamble, a legendary songwriter and founder of Philadelphia International Records, created and runs Universal Companies, a not-for-profit community development organization involved in education, real estate and social services.
“Where there was a time when it was against the law of the country for people of African-American descent to even read or write, it is even more important today that we discuss education for the African-American community,” Gamble told Romney.
Romney highlighted his record of education as governor of Massachusetts, when the state’s schools were among the best in the nation in some areas. But Gamble interjected, “Governor, you’ve got to go back and remember how the whole concept of education has failed. You go back a few years, even in Boston, when they were trying to integrate schools and they had young black children going to white neighborhoods and they were throwing eggs at the little black children, spitting on them, calling them all kinds of names.”
Outside, meanwhile, some brick row houses across from the school were boarded up. Police had cordoned off a full city block to protect Romney and his entourage. Residents, some of them organized by Obama’s campaign, stood on their porches and gathered at a sidewalk corner to shout angrily at Romney. Some held signs saying, “We are the 99%.” One man’s placard trumpeted an often-referenced Romney gaffe: “I am not concerned about the very poor.”
Madaline G. Dunn, 78, who said she has lived here for 50 years and volunteers at the school, said she is “personally offended” that Romney would visit her neighborhood.
“It’s not appreciated here,” she said. “It is absolutely denigrating for him to come in here and speak his garbage.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) addressed protesters and the media, quipping that Romney “suddenly somehow found West Philadelphia.”
“It’s nice that he decided this late in his [campaign] to see what a city like Philadelphia is about,” Nutter said. But, he added, “I don’t know that a one-day experience in the heart of West Philadelphia is enough to get you ready to run the United States of America.”
“You want to have an urban experience?” Nutter added. “You want to have a West Philly experience? Then come out here and talk to somebody in West Philly.”
Philadelphia’s district attorney, Seth Williams, said Romney does not understand the plight of urban America and was hiding from “real Americans.”
“Instead of just talking at the school and getting back on his huge bus, he should come out, he should walk 60th Street, he should talk to folks who are out here that are mad so maybe he could understand how real Americans, those that live here in urban America, the issues that are important to us,” Williams said.
Although Romney has not focused on the black community in his campaign so far, his father, George, reached out to African Americans and pursued policies designed to help lift blacks out of poverty during his service as governor of Michigan and secretary of Housing and Urban Development as well as in his 1968 presidential campaign.
Inside the school, Romney debated issues with educators and tried to connect with the students. When he visited a classroom where the kids in the elementary school choir were standing, swaying and clapping to the beat of Kirk Franklin’s “I Smile,” Romney appeared charmed but did not dance with them. Rather, he tapped one of his toes slightly and bobbed his head, but did not catch the rhythm..
“You just sang a song about smiling,” Romney told the kids. “You’re all smiling right? Smile! Oh, that’s great.”
During the roundtable session, Romney said there was no correlation between classroom size and student performance, citing a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company. That sparked a debate with some educators and other leaders around the table.
“I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I’ve been teaching, for 10 years, 13 years, who would say that more students [in the classroom] would benefit,” said Steven Morris, a music teacher at the school. “And I can’t think of a parent that would say I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids and only one teacher.”
Later, during a discussion about the gap in student performance between whites and blacks, Romney said a key to improving achievement in the classroom is traditional households of a mother and father.
“For a single mom living in a shelter with a couple of kids – those kids are at an enormous disadvantage, there’s no question about that,” Romney said. “Relative to a home where a mom and a dad are -- where they’re able to be home for dinner…. And so if we’re thinking about the kids of tomorrow, trying to help move people to understand, you know, getting married and having families where there’s a mom and a dad together has a big impact.”
This story has been updated.
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