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Countdown, Day 3: Class-size challenges and split grades loom

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

The School District’s staff has shrunk by 3,000 since June, with 17,144 employees (full-time equivalents) now on the payroll. That’s a 15 percent staffing cut. The District has not yet released information about how many of those eliminated positions were teachers.

But when schools open the doors to students on Monday, classrooms will be feeling the pinch from reduced staff in a few different ways.

The District anticipates starting the year with about 100 split-grade classrooms, according to Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski. Rarely seen in Philadelphia schools since a push by parents to stop the practice in 2007, "splits" are a way of saving a teaching position.

"We did have more than 100, but we’re using [federal] Title II funding to address especially the [grade] 3-4 splits," Stanski said.

To eliminate all the split-grade classrooms would cost the District $11 million.

And that’s money Stanski said the District simply doesn’t have.

He confirmed that the District has succeeded in eliminating what was once a $304 million budget gap — primarily through $254 million in budget cuts.

But in this year’s budget there is no slack at all, and he anticipates that the District will end the new fiscal year next June 30 with a fund balance of zero dollars.

"That makes it much more difficult to deal with emergency situations," he said. The District had hoped to maintain a reserve through the fiscal year but has fallen far short of its revenue and savings projections.

Reports from schools make clear that the District has been stingy in its teacher allotments, and many schools are looking at class sizes far above what has been the contractually negotiated limit — 30 students maximum up through grade 3, and 33 students for grades 4 and up.

According to Stanski, the District has brought back a pool of 26 teachers to be assigned to schools to address some of the splits and the most "drastic" classroom overcrowding. "That pool is there to address any major class-size issues we see on the first day of school," he said.

In addition, the District will review all of its teacher assignments and conduct a leveling process beginning in late September when actual enrollment patterns are clearer, and it will "move instructional resources accordingly."

"Leveling" is the process by which the District waits a month and counts how many students actually show up and stay before deciding on a final allotment of teachers. It is a longstanding District process, designed to make the most of existing resources. But it also can lead to much shifting around of teachers and instability.

Now, there is no budget for additional teachers beyond the 26. And in some cases, class sizes are headed through the roof.

A high school social studies teacher at the Academy at Palumbo tweeted Friday that she has a class with 48 students on her roster.

At Furness High School, teachers report that the school was alloted teachers based on a spring enrollment projection of 507 students. The population has since mushroomed to more than 680, but no new teachers have been assigned there.

"Last year my largest class was 22 students," said Roxborough High School math teacher Heidi Rochlin. "Now this year we have rostered classes with up to 41."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard noted that typically up to 30 percent of students will move in a given year, and it is necessary to be as economical as possible.

"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," he said.

High class sizes are another reason many schools will be missing their counselors, who are available to intervene when students need special attention. The District has restored 126 counseling positions (some schools have more than one), but for now, nearly half of District schools will not have a counselor based there who can respond to a student in distress.

Stanski said there are 156 additional laid-off counselors formerly paid from the operating budget, but the District needs $17.3 million to restore them. And 80 additional counseling positions that were funded with categorical dollars are gone.

The School District of Philadelphia faces an unprecedented situation – uncertainty over whether it will be in a position to open safe and functioning schools in September.

This feature, appearing each weekday, is an effort to highlight developments and motivate action as we get closer to the beginning of the school year. We encourage readers to send us information about both concerns and breakthroughs to

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