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Photo: Benjamin Herold

Benjamin Herold / The Notebook

Doing more with less

As the school year starts, budget cuts, staffing challenges, and leadership turmoil will force Philly schools to make hard decisions.

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

A new acting superintendent.

Hundreds fewer teachers and support staff.

And perhaps most challenging of all, roughly $320 million less in the District’s coffers, which means cuts in everything from new textbooks to school nurses.

Such are the realities facing a District that enters the new school year needing to do more with less.

Listen to Benjamin Herold’s report on the first day of school for WHYY.

"This is a really important time. We need everybody who has anything to do with educating children to feel as though they are part of the solution," said Leroy D. Nunery II, who was named acting superintendent August 22.

Nunery assumes control of a District in transition.

More than 60 principals are starting the year at new schools, numerous school closings are expected to be announced this fall, and a statewide probe into possible cheating on standardized tests could soon deepen.

In addition, the District has also been staggered by recent events, including the messy and protracted departure of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the continued statewide push to expand charter schools and voucher options, and unprecedented reductions in federal and state financial support.

The funding cuts will impact schools directly. At Benjamin Franklin High in North Philadelphia, for example, Principal Christopher Johnson says his budget has been slashed by 38 percent. In practical terms, that means 16 fewer teachers, average class sizes that have risen from 23 to 32 students, and the closing of the popular student success center that for years helped students prepare for college.

"Were we hit hard? Yes. Did they take everything? Not even close," said Johnson, who remains positive despite the challenges.

Indeed, the forecast for this school year is not all doom and gloom.

The District is coming off its ninth straight year of standardized test score gains, a streak it hopes to continue by carrying on with the key components of Imagine 2014, Ackerman’s five-year strategic plan.

Despite apocalyptic predictions during the budget process, critical programs and services like full-day kindergarten, instrumental music, and free transportation for most students remain intact.

A new educational accountability agreement between the city, state and District offers hope of more transparency in the District’s finances and decision-making.

And through the Renaissance Schools initiative, added resources and hopes for overhaul are coming to six of the District’s historic – but troubled – neighborhood high schools. Audenried, Simon Gratz, and Olney are among the seven low-performing schools handed over to Renaissance charter operators. Germantown, Martin Luther King, and West Philadelphia high schools are the District’s three new Promise Academies.

"We’re trying to present the prudent course of action and extend what good work has already been done," said Nunery.

Starting over

But for many schools, staying the course will not be an option this year.

For instance, at Potter-Thomas Elementary School in Kensington, Principal Dywonne Davis-Harris is starting over for the second year in a row.

Potter-Thomas is one of the District’s original Promise Academies, or internal turnaround schools. Two weeks before school, Davis-Harris still had more than 20 vacant teacher positions to fill. What was supposed to be a year of continued growth for an established instructional team turned into a last-minute scurry to plug holes.

"Each year, the children are seeing different faces," said Davis-Harris, who described the staffing situation as "disheartening."

Potter-Thomas is not alone.

On the heels of the massive budget cuts and protracted legal battles between the District and the teachers’ union over how to handle more than 1,200 teacher layoffs, the District is facing significant staffing challenges.

Hundreds of the laid-off teachers were reinstated, but things were in flux until the last minute. Many frustrated teachers say they spent the summer in limbo, waiting to learn if they would have jobs and where they might be assigned. Many took other positions elsewhere while waiting. For those who were placed, the turmoil and confusion means less time to prepare for the specific grade, subject, and students that they teach.

"Our goal is to have a qualified teacher in every classroom," said PFT President Jerry Jordan.

The District also enters the new school year with a significantly reduced – and reorganized – non-instructional staff. All told, the 2,418 people affected by the District’s "reduction in force" included 739 non-instructional school-based personnel, such as per diem school safety officers, and 457 central office staffers.

Among the hard-hit departments at 440 North Broad is the District’s finance office, which is set to lose more than half its staff.

And though the District still counts a total of nine academic subdivisions, some have been reshuffled. Middle schools are now folded into the divisions that include their neighborhood elementary schools.

A relative newcomer, Joel Boyd, is now in charge of the District’s 11 total Promise Academies, and veteran District administrator John Frangipani now heads a new, separate division for the District’s 13 Renaissance charter schools.

Some central office changes will be directly felt by students, parents, and community members.

For example, Parent University, which provides classes and enrichment opportunities to parents across the city, saw its budget slashed by 45 percent.

There will also be fewer services and supports available to immigrant students and families for whom English is a second language. Two of the District’s four Newcomer Learning Academies are being closed, and the number of bilingual counseling assistants has been cut from 103 to 58.

Some advocates are concerned.

"The real question is whether, when a non-English-speaking parent needs help from a person who speaks their language, a person will be available – where they’re needed, when they’re needed, and with the right skills and training," said Len Rieser, executive director of the Education Law Center.

A changing landscape

After the Notebook uncovered a Pennsylvania Department of Education report that flagged dozens of schools across the city and state for possible cheating on 2009 state standardized tests, District officials say changes are coming to test administration and monitoring protocols this year.

And there could be more fallout – further statistical analysis of 2010 and 2011 test results is expected this fall.

Also new in 2011-12 are two school consolidations and five grade configuration changes – the first steps in what the District promises will be a comprehensive new facilities master plan.

In October, the District intends to announce what could be dozens of additional closings and other "rightsizing" actions. Following three months of public hearings, those recommendations could be voted on by the School Reform Commission as early as January 2012. The goal is to shed 35,000 empty seats and realign the District’s physical plant to account for the city’s changing population and the continuing tide of students moving to charters.

In the past five years, the District has lost 11,000 students, many to charter schools, including the charter conversions that are part of the Renaissance initiative.

In the next three years, District officials expect to lose 10,000 more students. Neighborhoods like North Central and West Philadelphia are projected to continue experiencing a steep decline in the number of school-aged children attending traditional public schools.

Among the schools changing their configurations this year are Mann and Smedley elementaries, both Renaissance schools run by Mastery Charter. Both are adding a 6th grade.

In Northeast Philadelphia, Hancock Elementary and LaBrum Middle School are now consolidated into one school under a single administration.

Also part of the facilities plan, eight unused District properties, including the old Ada Lewis Middle School in East Germantown, are now for sale. Their disposition will be guided by a new "Adaptive Reuse Policy," which District officials hope will allow for the speedy sale of surplus property and help facilitate the buildings’ conversion to community or educational purposes.

One new school building is opening this year – West Philadelphia High, which is moving into a new $53 million facility down the street from its historic home at 47th and Walnut Streets.

The building is not all that’s new at West, however. Former Mastbaum principal Mary Sandra Dean will be the school’s fifth leader in the past 13 months, a consequence of the school’s rocky transition to a Promise Academy.

West will also be opening with an almost entirely new teaching staff, just one year after turning over 40 percent of its teachers.

With the start of school fast approaching, rising senior Kyhare Moore is both apprehensive and skeptical about all the changes.

"You can make it look nice and you can give new school uniforms, but [it’s] still going to be West," said Moore.