The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Back to school: It’s worse than you think

Amid an agonizing financial and leadership crisis, the appointed School Reform Commission, which has run the district since the state took it over a dozen years ago, passed a “doomsday” budget this past summer that included cuts so drastic there was no money for schools to open this fall with funding for things such as paper, new books, athletics, arts, music, counselors, assistant principals and more. Teachers were laid off. This came after the closure of a few dozen schools.

How did this happen? The state government has financially starved the district for years, and the city’s public school system has been subjected to one reform experiment after another.

How bad is it? Superintendent William Hite made some accommodations to allow schools to open, but parents say the answer to the question is this: Worse than you think.

Here to explain is Helen Gym, a Philadelphia public school parent and activist. Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and accountability in the public schools. She is a former editor of The Notebook, an independent Web site about Philadelphia public schools. She is also a board member at Asian Americans United, a Chinatown-based community organization focused on education, youth leadership, immigrant rights and community development. Gym was named the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Citizen of the Year” in 2007 for her work in education and immigration and her community activism. A fuller version of this appeared on the Parents United for Public Education Web site.

By Helen Gym

Dozens of parents came out to school district headquarters for an emergency meeting earlier this week to finally get some answers to rumors, questions and fears surrounding the first day of school this coming Monday. To many people’s surprise and outrage, Superintendent William Hite stayed for less than a half hour, answered barely a fraction of the questions people had, and offered no other staff (other than one staff person from Specialized Services) equipped to handle parents’ questions and concerns.

At first, it seemed like just another example of marginalizing parents. But in reality, it confirmed what we had come to realize: The district doesn’t have the answers.

The superintendent wasn’t being rude. Far from it. He’s among the most individually personable superintendents this district has had. But for most of our questions, he had no answers.  Here’s a sample of the dozens of inquiries individual parents submitted to him:

  1. Will there be enough aides to monitor before school, after school, lunch and class transition times?
  2. What were Dr. Hite’s criteria for determining that it is okay to open the schools under current staffing levels? With insufficient counselors and assistant. principals, many emotional and behavioral issues will go unaddressed. Many principals feel they are unequipped to educate. What is Dr. Hite’s answer?
  3. What is the safety plan for schools when they open on Monday, Sept. 9?
  4. How will roving counselors administer the process for students’ Individual Education Plans? Will we get a dedicated counselor from this roving pool? How will this meet my son’s legally required services?
  5. How will the high school application process work without a counselor?
  6. My son’s high school will have classes of over 40 students. Why can’t additional teachers be hired now versus shuffling the kids throughout Sept.  Are you just willing to write off the first month and half of the school year?
  7. Will the teachers be trained to administer medicine if the nurse isn’t at the school?
  8. What are the priorities (positions) that will hired back if additional funding comes available?
  9. Has the district reversed its policy on split grades (putting two grades with one teacher to save money) and how do you justify reversing a policy that has been in place to protect children for years?
  10. Do you work for the School Reform Commission, the governor, the mayor, or us (parents) or for our children? Who is your customer? Is quality education important?

More than 60 questions were submitted to the district; the district is supposed to email us back responses. But emails are not a plan, and with the start of school right around the corner, you have to wonder if the top district leadership even grasps how serious the situation is.

Say what you will about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who closed nearly 50 Chicago schools last spring. In June, the mayor announced he would be investing $15 million into the city’s Safe Passage program, hiring 1,200 workers, allegedly fixing broken streetlights and repairing sidewalks, and coordinating Chicago’s school opening with police escorts. I don’t say this to praise a  mayor who mercilessly and recklessly executed the largest school closing in U.S. history. I mention it because when you have dramatic school closings and young children navigating unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous neighborhoods for the first time, this is the LEAST you do.

Not in Philly.

Yesterday  (the Friday before school starts), a parent leader called the Walk Safe Philadelphia contact number – the city office responsible for ensuring safe routes between closing schools and receiving schools – to request information on the number of volunteers, crossing guards and placement of staff on the route between two closing schools. The contact person said he had not been provided with any information and had nothing available. Subsequent phone calls went to voicemail.

This week, district officials held a press conference to unveil “SEPTA travel tips!” and present a complimentary list of bus and trolley lines running between closed schools and assorted receiving schools to . . .  the media, NOT parents, the media. With all due respect to SEPTA, travel tips are what you give to vacationers. It’s not how you handle the district’s most massive school mergers effort less than a week before school starts.

Perhaps the most outrageous moment of last Tuesday’s meeting with Hite occurred when Lea Home and School President Maurice Jones raised the question of why parents have yet to receive a specific safety plan after more than four months of requests. District spokesperson Evelyn Sample Oates assured him she had personally viewed Lea’s plan and “it was wonderful.” She said she’d email it to him, requesting that he please distribute it to other concerned parents.

Forty-eight hours later, guess what? He was still waiting.

The lack of school counselors was among the most resonant issues for parents all across the board. The district’s plan to only give full-time counselors and only one(!) to schools larger than 600 students means that 60% of all schools – including half of all the high schools – won’t have a full-time counselor. District staff said a few days ago that they were informed that for schools smaller than 600 students, counselors will be shared among seven schools – an unfathomable 1 to 3,000 student ratio.

Teacher Action Group-Philly tweeted out a page from the District’s School Operations handbook from the section on how to handle potential suicide threats in schools.

Graphic: Teacher Action Group-Philadelphia via Twitter

With the exception of the principal, it appears none of the members of the “emergency response team” are guaranteed full-time members of a school staff anymore.

Consider that the District just passed a ground-breaking anti-bias and harassment policy requiring staff to stop, report and thoroughly investigate all incidents of bullying and/or harassment in school. As someone who personally worked on the policy, it now seems almost a mockery when juxtaposed against school staffing levels today.

We haven’t even touched academics.

A high school teacher tweeted us about 48 students on her roster: 48!

On Friday the Public School Notebook reported 100 split-grade classes across the district – a policy that Parents United for Public Education, among others, had earlier been successful in eliminating due to its recognized pedagogical failure.

Said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard:

This is particularly a difficult financial situation we’re in, and we want to make sure we wait and see how many students are in a classroom before we hire any more teachers.

Make sure we wait for what exactly? For students to drop out? For them to transfer into charter schools?

This isn’t “living within your means.” It’s an abdication of the district’s central mission.

My son enters ninth grade this year. His grade cohort represents the first group of students mandated to take the ten Keystone exams required for graduation.  It doesn’t matter that his school for the first time this year cancelled ninth grade orientation due to the chaos and lack of support in the district. It doesn’t matter that honors classes have been dropped, or that he has little likelihood of getting a guidance counselor’s time to understand his options. It doesn’t matter that his teachers have endured a bruising summer of yo-yo employment and vilifying rhetoric and already feel exhausted at the start of the year. No, he’s the one whose failure confirms the misery of this system or whose success makes it all worthwhile. It’s a no-win situation.

This is what a parent emailed me after hearing that her school would share one guidance counselor among seven high-needs schools.

This is totally UNACCEPTABLE and inhumane… I feel so frustrated right now.  I cannot believe we are in America fighting for the right to even a basic education, much less a quality one.

After talking and hearing from so many parents over this summer, there’s no question that most of us feel the district is in no shape to open schools Monday. But yet, the doors will open and 138,000 children will walk through those doors – and every single one deserves our vigilance.

Read more from Helen Gym here.