How bad is Phillie schools crisis? This bad.

The word “crisis” is misused and abused in the education world, but it applies perfectly to what is going on in Philadelphia. A financial crisis in the Philadelphia school district is so profound that schools may not be able to open as scheduled Sept. 9. Superintendent William Hite, a former schools superintendent in Prince George’s County, Md., has said he may have to keep the schools closed, open only a few or open some and operate for on half-day schedules. If schools do open, they will be missing some of the fundamentals that were cut in a “doomsday budget” that the School Reform Commission passed in late May. It has no funding for athletics, arts, music, counselors, paper, new books, and more. In addition, the districts laid off thousands of employees, including hundreds of teachers. Even Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, made an unusual public statement about the financial crisis in Philadelphia, urging officials to fix the problems. His recent statement said in part:

There’s no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century, and it’s even worse to see it in Philadelphia, the cornerstone of this great country and the cradle for our founding principles.

 

To understand how the crisis is affecting students, here’s a powerful open letter from a teacher, Daniel Ueda of Central High School, about how the crisis is affecting him, his colleagues and the award-winning robotics team of 80 students that he oversees. This appeared on the team’s website.

Dear Philadelphia,

 

The RoboLancers need your help.

 

There are many stories floating around about how the School District budget problems are going to affect the schools, the students, the community, and the teachers.  But there are personal stories in there as well.  Stories about good teachers losing their jobs, about students being pushed from a school they love during their senior year, about seniors scared about the college admission process without guidance counselors, about teachers getting pushed into situations they are not best qualified for.  Then there is our story.

 

This story is about how a robotics team of 80 students that has won multiple awards for their outreach, teaching Philadelphia students about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), that has traveled to international competitions, that raised over $30,000 in one week for a championship in St. Louis, that runs the popular Philly Robotics Expo during Philly Tech Week, and that sends 90% of its seniors on to engineering undergraduate programs, may not exist this year.

 

The reason this team may not exist is directly due to the ineffectiveness of the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission and Governor Corbett.  That ineffectiveness has led to the following actions and proposals that is forcing me to consider shutting down our team:

 

  • I am being asked to take a 13% pay cut.
  • All funding for robotics programs including teachers’ salaries have been cut.
  • The district is seeking the power to move teachers from school to school.
  • I am being asked to work a longer work day.
  • We have been left with 1 nurse for 2500 students.
  • All guidance counselors have been laid off, eliminating opportunities for scholarships and making the college application process virtually impossible for my students.
  • I am being asked to switch from Physics to Math, take an additional class, and teach at least three different kinds of classes, all in violation of the current contract and all due to layoffs and budget constraints.
  • I am being asked to sacrifice my preparation periods for school operations.
  • Schools may not open on Sept. 9th.
  • Partial or full union strikes are looming.

As coach of the RoboLancers, I work very, very hard.  From January through April, I work 60-70 hours a week at school and then countless hours at home prepping for class, grading papers, and fundraising.  During the rest of the year, I routinely work 45-60 hours at school.  Yet, the District wishes to mandate I have a longer work day, take a pay cut, and work through my preparation periods.

 

I work with my team to raise $20,000 every year to pay for our expenses because the School District gives us absolutely no support.

 

I also work closely with Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania to help inspire students to go into STEM fields.  I go through constant professional development to improve my skills in the classroom and to offer as much as I possibly can to my students.  Yet, I am disrespected repeatedly by the Mayor and the Governor.

 

I was not paid for my work with the robotics team last year, just as many club coaches are not paid across the city.  I do this work because I care about my city and the kids in it.  Yet, Mayor Nutter and Governor Corbett say that I’m not sacrificing enough.

 

Now, with the decisions the School District, the School Reform Commission, and Governor Corbett have made, doing the work that I do with my students and with the City of Philadelphia may be impossible.

 

The School Reform Commission has failed this city and its School District.  Ten years of failed policies and decisions have led us to this point, a tipping point, and now this great city has to decide.

 

What kind of school system do you want?  Do you want a school system that supports programs like the RoboLancers and experienced teachers who work as hard as I do?  Or do you want to undercut our professionals and our kids by moving to a system that underpays inexperienced teachers and sees test results as the ultimate goal?

 

Philadelphia must take back control of its schools from the state.  Pennsylvania is benefitting from the move to a charter system, but Philadelphia is not.  Take a look at what is happening in Chicago.  That is our future if we don’t put our foot down and say enough is enough.

 

Please Philadelphia, I want to teach your kids.  I want my robotics program to continue thriving.  I want my students to keep getting jobs as freshmen in robotics labs at Drexel.  I want to help make this a better city to live in.  But I need your help.  Contact the Mayor, your council person, the Governor, and tell them to support your students, your schools, and your teachers.  Tell them to stop holding our children’s future ransom, to give them every opportunity they deserve.  Tell them to give control of the School District back to the city.

 

Thank you,

Daniel Ueda, BSME, MST
Physics Teacher and FIRST Robotics Coach
Geek of the Year nominee – 2013, Lindback Award Winner – 2013, Delaware Valley Engineers Week Science Teacher of the Year -2013
Central High School

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | August 14, 2013