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Students wonder: Where has our education gone?

In District and charter high schools, strong feelings about the impact of budget cuts.

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

For Nazir Vincent, an 11th grader at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, transferring from Charter High School for Architecture + Design and adjusting to his new environment were challenging enough. But when the District started making severe cuts to valuable programs and services – watering down the quality of education – Vincent said high school life got even tougher.

Since his sophomore year, Vincent said that he has witnessed the effects of several changes at his school. SAT prep and dance classes have been cut. The number of guidance counselors has gone from four to one. And split grades – classes in which students on two grade levels are put together – have been created.

“It is frustrating, so annoying when you’re put in a class with 9th graders when you’re a 10th grader,” said Vincent.

He said he asks himself, “Why are they in my classroom?”

Vincent is not alone in contending that there is inadequate support right now for students to successfully get through high school.

Sitting in the Youth United for Change office one summer afternoon before the start of the 2014-15 school year, he and several other students had lots to say about the negative impact that cuts have had on their schools. Vincent, now less enthusiastic about school, said he is unsure about the days ahead. It’s a sentiment even shared by some of their principals.

“Education is not the top priority item on the state or city’s list. The city has to go begging on its knees each year for funding,” said Jose Lebron, principal of ASPIRA Olney High School.

“Education in other countries is a priority. Why is America, the most important country in the world, behind others in it?”

Dealing with the damage

District and charter schools have suffered cuts in academic and extracurricular programs, school supplies, and administrative and teaching staff. Critical nursing positions have also been eliminated, causing concern among many students.

Tenth graders Mahala Papadopoulos of Masterman, Christine Ellis of Mastbaum, and Brian Burney of Benjamin Franklin, complained about the reduced nursing staff at their schools.

Burney, who is a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, is concerned about how he will get his asthma medication “because [the nurse] is not there and the area is locked.”

“So, am I going to have an asthma attack and die?” he asked.

Twice in the past year, Philadelphia elementary school students died in local hospitals after taking ill at school – one from asthma and one from a heart condition. Both incidents happened on days when the school nurse was not present. Both raised serious concerns about whether schools are adequately staffed to deal with medical emergencies.

An increase in class sizes has also been a challenge for students. Many schools have classrooms with close to 30 students – or more – increasing the responsibilities and workload of staff. To deal with the increased workload, principals have had to strategically assign teachers and offer professional development to maximize their skills.

Angela Villani, CEO of Mariana Bracetti Academy, said that her school had to cut its Read Right Reading Intervention Program that provided individualized instruction for at-risk students. This has been problematic because many of the incoming middle school students are two to three years below grade level. The school also had to cut nine other employees.

Chikae Williamson, a senior at ASPIRA Olney, said that the librarians were laid off at her school. Ellis said that the Mastbaum library closed.

The counselor situation is no better, with some schools staffed by counselors who travel from one school to another. “They don’t know these students, this new community,” Lebron said.

A quality education?

Burney said that when students have to bring their own classroom supplies, like paper, and share books – some of which are almost 10 years old – it’s clear that the quality of education in the District has changed.

“Why aren’t there enough books to read out of?” Burney asked in frustration.

“You’re trying to read, and it’s like there’s a book here and an elbow over here on you and stuff.”

Students are also feeling the effects of fewer extracurricular activities, and cuts in music and art classes. These subjects and programs brought needed balance to their day.

Hezekiah Mac, a senior at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter, said he noticed a change in attitude among his friends when sports were cut at their schools.

He said his friends “were hurt because sports for them was their way to get away from the things they were doing, so if you cut that, you [are] just making matters worse.”

Times are tough right now in the District, but students continue to hang on, determined to push through the problems.

“I’m not going to [let the cuts] get me down and stop me from reaching what I want in life, what I want to accomplish,” said Katherine Garcia, a sophomore at Edison High School.

“You just try harder,” added Papadopoulos, a Philadelphia Student Union member. “There is nowhere to go [so] you just try as hard as you can.”

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