This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Any 4th graders going back to David Hensel’s class in Taggart Elementary School to retrieve something they forgot might have seen an odd sight last year: “Mr. Hensel” on his knees poking at a wall outlet with tweezers.
“I was trying to pull out the phone jacks,” Hensel said. “I was told there was only one person in the District who could do it. The Internet was down in my classroom all last year. It was really frustrating.”
While today’s news headlines talk of massive budget cuts making schools almost unrecognizable when they open, teachers and administrators at several schools say that the last two or three years are already an object lesson in what happens when schools try to operate with a skeleton staff.
Present and former staff members at Roxborough High School and two elementary schools – Taggart in South Philadelphia and Bache-Martin in Fairmount – described to the Notebook how staffing and other shortages have made school life more difficult for both them and the students.
Cuts at Roxborough were already severe, said former principal Stephen Brandt, who left the District in the spring to become principal at Bensalem High School. He said he had reduced support staff and tried to “preserve the integrity of the academic program,” but that eventually “cuts in funding trickle down to the classroom.”
When he started at Roxborough in March 2010, Brandt said, he had four secretaries. By last year it had been reduced to one.
He went from two assistant principals to one and lost two other administrators, a climate manager who handled disciplinary issues and a school operations officer who handled business matters such as purchasing. The technology person went from full-time to half-time.
Teachers who had been able to serve as deans had to be full-time in classrooms.
“You’ve thrown support staff work and counseling on principals,” he said.
‘Someone slammed on the brakes’
Staff at the three schools cite other issues:
- Reduced availability of technology personnel to both teach computer skills and maintain the schools’ computers;
- The loss of many bilingual counseling assistants (BCAs);
- Difficulties in getting sufficient numbers of textbooks;
- Lack of free time for experienced teachers to mentor new ones;
- A constant churn of personnel as staff claimed vacancies under seniority provisions of the union contract.
“We had the accelerator down,” said Denise DeFrancesco, who recently retired as a special education teacher and department head at Roxborough High School. Now, she said, “it’s like someone slammed on the brakes.” Where she used to have release time to coordinate the school’s special education program, last year she had to spend every period in the classroom.
Still, said DeFrancesco, 58, “I’d have stayed several more years. The school was moving in a great direction.” But she left out of concern that givebacks in a new teachers’ contract could reduce her accrued sick leave time and cost her tens of thousands of dollars.
Angela Chan, a 3rd grade teacher at Taggart who is about two decades younger than DeFrancesco, can’t retire and doesn’t think about leaving. But she finds herself frustrated by developments at the school in recent years.
Taggart teacher Angela Chan said that some of the most painful cuts of the past few years were to bilingual staff who helped make sure that immigrant families could connect with schools.
“Our BCAs [that] we used to have two years ago and our parent ombudsman [another staff position that was cut] used to have really good relationships with parents and the larger community,” she said. “They made sure that families who were immigrants felt welcomed and that their voices were heard.
“Not that nobody tries to reach out to all groups now, but our school community isn’t the same without them.”
Changes in the teaching staff also took their toll, she said.
“We had some younger teachers who were truly passionate about improving their craft and reflective in their practice, but they were laid off and took their talents elsewhere.
“The layoff of extra teaching staff who are not homeroom teachers eliminated the regular grade group meetings we used to have weekly,” Chan added. “We were struggling with creating a collaborative culture … and a lack of staff made it hard to provide to provide coverage for teachers to get together.”
Then, she said, there are the informal tasks that have been added, such as copying textbooks when new ones aren’t available. “It’s too time-consuming and we’re already short on paper.”
Chan will be returning to Taggart, but counselor Diane DellaVella may not be. She was one of the almost 4,000 District employees to receive layoff notices this summer. DellaVella said she felt the loss in recent years of Taggart’s part-time librarian and of a school police officer “who really took time to work with the kids.”
Personnel, other resources lost
Nina Liou, president of Bache-Martin’s Home and School Association, said that the most serious cuts there came three years ago, which was when federal stimulus money dried up.
“Last year, we didn’t lose any teachers,” said Liou. “It’s the resources we can’t maintain.”
Earlier, she said, the school lost a computer teacher who had taught social media skills, and an art teacher who had been available two or three days a week had been cut back to one-and-a- half days at the school.
Teachers talked of maintenance problems as well as personnel problems.
“Getting a repairman to fix things is a challenge,” says Kristen Luebbert, who teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies at Bache-Martin. “Everyone’s praying that the copier doesn’t die. A lot of what’s wearing out won’t be replaced. We’ve had very few new books in the past two or three years. You can’t get new phonics workbooks.”
Hensel said he has had a similar experience at Taggart, where the technology lab got new computers but there isn’t anyone to teach computer skills to the lower grades. The few computers in the classrooms, he said, are “slow and outdated.”
He said that the school also lost about 15 teachers two years ago and that while some of the positions were later filled, it was with different people. “That took a real toll on the kids,” he said.
From his new office at Bensalem High School, Brandt makes the same point: Educators and key staffers aren’t interchangeable parts.
“If a secretary is furloughed at Roxborough and called back, she may be placed somewhere else,” he said. “Having a secretary who knows the students, the parents, and the staff is critical.”
Brandt, who earlier this year received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Principal Leadership, said he left the Philadelphia School District both because of the professional opportunities at Bensalem and out of concern whether he would be given sufficient resources had he stayed.
Brandt did see one benefit of his having left. “It saved my assistant principal, [Dana Jenkins],” he said.
“Had I not left, the position wouldn’t have been there for her to be promoted into, and she would have been laid off. She’s certainly ready to lead that school.”