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Agreement reached on Promise Academy staffing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Dale Mezzacappa and Benjamin Herold

Eight low-achieving schools that had been promised major changes for next year will no longer be overhauling their teaching staffs, according to an agreement reached Thursday by the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

Instead, teachers who worked in those schools last year will now return to their previous positions – news that angered some parents at affected schools who were looking forward to a clean slate and a new start.

“I think it’s absolutely disgusting that the teachers who have been ineffective for more than five or six years are now coming back,” said Gloria Thomas, the mother of an 11th grader and the chair of the School Advisory Council (SAC) at William Sayre High.

Sayre is one of eight schools that until Wednesday had expected to become a Promise Academy next year. The change would have meant extra resources, a longer school day and year, and the opportunity for the schools to radically reshape their teaching staffs. The schools had begun making decisions about which existing staff members to retain, as well as offering newly opened positions to outside candidates.

But as part of their efforts to close a remaining $35 million budget gap, District officials announced Wednesday a plan to scale back from 11 to three the number of new Promise Academies for the 2011-12 school year. The other seven schools whose Promise Academy status was revoked are Alcorn, Barry, Fitzsimons, Smith, W.D. Kelley, Pennell, and South Philadelphia High.

Martin Luther King, Germantown, and West Philadelphia high schools will go forward as Promise Academies.

The School Reform Commission still needs to vote to approve the plan, which along with program cutbacks at the continuing Promise Academies is expected to save $17.7 million.

The changes, which are coming just a month before the new school year starts, will likely mean more chaos in the District’s already tumultuous staffing process and more uncertainty for city teachers.

“I get calls every day from teachers concerned about where they are going to be,” said PFT President Jerry Jordan. “It’s very unsettling.”

In June, the District sent out pink slips to roughly 1,500 teachers, part of an effort to close an unprecedented budget gap of over $600 million.

But the PFT sued the District for trying to protect 174 Promise Academies teachers from layoffs even though they had less seniority than others in traditional District schools. The sides are still awaiting an arbitrator’s ruling on that issue, which could come as soon as Friday.

As a result, the summer ritual of filling vacancies at schools across the city has essentially ground to a halt, leaving hundreds if not thousands of teachers with no idea where they will be working come September.

“I feel like I’m part of a psychological [experiment],” said a first-year teacher who was one of the 174 Promise Academy teachers initially exempted from layoffs.

The teacher, who declined to give her name, described the past two months as “limbo.”

“We’re pretty much in the dark,” she said.

As part of Thursday’s agreement, any outside teachers who had been selected to work in one of the eight aborted Promise Academies will return to their old school assignments. The site selection process for those teachers chosen for one of those eight schools is “null and void,” said PFT President Jordan.

Those teachers, however, can apply to stay in their new assignment as a “voluntary transfer” if a vacancy still exists after the principal deals with his or her reduced, non-Promise Academy budget.

“But if all the people want to come back, then that person has to go,” Jordan said.

According to the agreement, those pushed out of the eight schools who have already found a job in another school will be able to remain in their new assignment if they want.

Both the teachers’ union and the District expressed optimism that the selection process would be completed in time and that all schools would open with a full complement of teachers.

Though Jordan described the situation as still “fluid,” he said he was prepared to cancel all his staff vacations so the delayed teacher assignment process could be completed quickly.

Once the arbitrator rules on the question of the 174 teachers, he said, the District’s remaining vacancies could be filled “within two weeks.” Teachers will be informed, according to seniority, when to to come District headquarters to pick a school.

A District statement said that “the challenge and the goal we will meet is to have all schools fully staffed by September 6.”

Some, however, are worried about if and how that will happen.

At Martin Luther King High, one of the three new Promise Academies, only about 15 of 71 teachers are on board, said Conchevia Washington, the chair of King’s SAC.

“We’re really just in a holding pattern,” she said.

PFT president Jordan also said that it is late for teachers starting new positions to properly prepare. Combined with all the layoffs, that could hinder the ability of schools to function well come September.

“If you are going to a new school and your assignment is fifth grade, and you’ve been teaching first or second grade, summer is the time that you bone up on subjects or age groups they haven’t taught for a while,” he said.

Like other school turnaround models, the Promise Academies are based in part on the idea that the best way to quickly improve chronically low-performing schools is to replace the adults in the school, especially teachers.

In the District’s first crop of six Promise Academies, just 24 percent of teachers who had been at the schools previously returned, according to a study by Research for Action. The study also showed that as a group the Promise Academy teachers were younger and less experienced than teachers in comparable District schools.

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