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A smooth opening or slow-brewing disaster?

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

While Michelle Rhee was praising Philadelphia’s efforts to restructure public education, union and community advocates gathered across town to warn of a slow-brewing disaster behind the scenes.

“We can’t sit and say this has been a great opening,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “We all know that the resources in our classrooms in June were not adequate. And to have them reduced even more is not acceptable.”

Advocates acknowledged that the first days of classes were marred by only a few clearly problematic public incidents, such as the reported sexual assault of a 12-year-old student walking to school in Mantua.

But inside school buildings, they said, classes are overcrowded, staff is overstretched, and students will eventually pay the price.

Deionni Martinez, a sophomore at the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (KCAPA), said her classes seemed about twice as large this year as last. “By the second day, we had about 40 students in each class,” she said. “If you didn’t get there right when the bell rang, you didn’t get a seat. You didn’t get a book. You couldn’t hear the teacher. It’s just really different from last year.”

What’s more, Martinez said, much of the school’s arts staff has been cut back or eliminated. The band teacher has gone from full-time to part-time, she said. The dance teacher is gone. An art teacher is also a biology teacher.

The situation has made truth of a bitter joke that circulated among students during last year’s budget crisis, Martinez said. “They said it was going to go from ‘Kensington CAPA,’ to being ‘Kensington for and,’ because there’s no more ‘creative’ or ‘performing arts,’” she said.

(District and school officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on KCAPA’s staffing.)

Teachers and parents shared stories of first-week pains.

“My son’s first-day biology class was 60 students,” said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education.

“Parents are not being allowed in school. They don’t want you to see what’s going on,” said another parent.

“My school has gone from 470 children to over 680, and we haven’t increased our number of bathrooms. It’s disgusting,” said one teacher.

Jordan said that his members tell him troubling stories of all kinds: teachers being asked to bring up desks from the basement on their own; teachers being unable to use copy machines because no one was available to fix them. “Class sizes are huge. Buildings are understaffed. We have reports of lines outside the buildings because the secretary can only work so fast to register students,” he said.

And while reports of closed libraries, crowded classrooms and overstretched counselors in elite schools such as Masterman and Central High have gotten a lot of attention, one parent said that what’s “doomsday” for magnet schools is old news for neighborhood schools.

“A lot of the things the better schools are seeing now, we were already seeing in our schools,” said Kia Hinton, a W.C. Longstreth Elementary parent and chair of Action United’s education committee. “I guess we’ve pretty much gotten used to seeing those conditions. Our parents are like, ‘this is the norm.’ For a lot of parents where I’m coming from, this is what we know.”

The first week at her children’s school was “pretty typical,” Hinton said. “Parents were convening in the schoolyard – nobody really knew what was what. There was a lot of confusion that first day … [but staff] handled things pretty orderly.” Classes were crowded, she said, but her children are used to that. “That’s become pretty much the norm for them,” she said. “It’s not a concern for them, but it is for me.”

The Rev. Mark Tyler of POWER, an interfaith community organizing group, compared the District’s situation to that of a family in financial crisis that has figured out a short-term solution but still faces a long-term problem. “This is not sustainable,” he said. “I’m not surprised that things are going well right now. We’ll see in a year from now.”

Tyler cited the lack of counselors as the most glaring and potentially damaging issue. Masterman, for example, now has one counselor for 1,200 students, while other schools, like McCall Elementary, share their only counselor with a half-dozen other schools.

“If there’s anything that’s not sustainable, that would be the key,” Tyler said. A bare-bones staff may be able to keep the lid on most day-to-day problems, he said, but the lack of counselors means students won’t get the attention they need when it’s time to decide about high school and college, or when they have personal or emotional problems to deal with.

Gym and other advocates urged teachers, parents and students to document their schools’ issues by filing formal reports with the state.

“We’ve had a lot of stories, but what we also need are formal legal complaints with names, dates, exact harm that was done,” Gym said.

One laid-off counselor rushed up to greet Martinez when the student was done speaking, offering to help her create those reports.

“We need something tangible to go to Harrisburg,” said the counselor, who didn’t want her name used because she hopes to work for the District again. “I’m not sure if any principals would be happy if I knocked on the door and asked if I can come in and write complaints.”

Martinez’s story struck a deep chord in her, the counselor said, because while working at her now-closed middle school, she advised many of her students to apply to KCAPA.

“Many kids in our school wanted to go to CAPA,” she said, referring to the magnet arts school on South Broad Street. “CAPA’s very difficult to get into. I then said to them, ‘Why don’t you try Kensington CAPA? You might have a better time getting in.’ I feel guilty. I shooed kids that way! I feel horrible now!”

She also said that current caseload levels mean her colleagues now face an almost impossible task.

“You can’t do a good job,” she said. “The whole basis of counseling is rapport. If you’re unable to build a rapport with children, you’re unable to do anything. You might be able to fill out some high school forms or college forms, but that’s about it. If you don’t know who the child is, where they’re coming from and where they want to go, you’re not making any progress at all. You’re filling out a form.”

Advocates vowed to keep up the fight for fair funding.

“We can’t just sit back and tell stories about what’s wrong. We have to be reacting, we have to be asserting our power,” said Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher and longtime activist.

“We have to act now … on every elected official,” Jerry Jordan said.

Hinton said that building support for that fight among parents isn’t easy. “It’s a challenge to get those parents to come out,” she said. “It’s always the same folks. So we need other folks to join us.”

And Martinez confessed that keeping her morale up can be hard, especially when last year’s large student protests around the budget produced few or no results.

“What are we going to keep fighting for?” she said. “We did this huge event, and no one heard us.”

But Tyler said the city’s future health depends on winning some stability for the District and ending its destructive cycle of annual budget crises and political showdowns.

“For most of us there’s a lot of stress and anxiety,” he said. “Philadelphia has a great opportunity. Like a lot of people who moved here by choice, I see a lot of potential. But the schools situation is either going to make or break Philly.”

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