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Overbrook High School could have a biology teacher by Friday

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

And why is this news? Don’t all high schools have biology teachers?

Actually, no, not in Philadelphia or some other cash-strapped districts that have problems recruiting enough certified teachers for certain subjects.

In the past, unfortunately, this kind of situation was taken for granted in schools that served mostly low-income students of color. Something called biology class, maybe with a substitute teacher, was slapped together and students who did enough work got credit for it.

But now, things are different. Under current state law, starting with the class of 2017 (today’s sophomores) — biology is one of three subjects that students must pass in order to graduate. The others are English and Algebra I.

Last month, State Sen. Andrew Dinniman cited Overbrook’s lack of a biology teacher as support for his proposal to remove Keystone exams from state graduation requirements, which he says unfairly harm students in poor districts with inadequate school funding. He also released a chart comparing what is available to students in affluent West Chester with the resources at Overbrook, one of Philadelphia’s troubled neighborhood high schools.

This disparity in opportunity is at the heart of a fair-funding lawsuit filed last fall by several school districts, parents, and organizations against the state. School funding lawsuits in the 1990s in Pennsylvania never went anywhere, because the courts decided that they had no jurisdiction to second-guess the legislature about what constituted a "thorough and efficient" education. Then, no measurable standards existed — but now they do, and lawyers who filed the suit think that this will make a difference in the outcome.

Last Friday, several students and a teacher who were interviewed outside Overbrook at dismissal time described what has been going on since September.

Several 10th and 12th graders said that for biology, the 10th graders headed to the computer lab, where they worked through an online biology course.

One 10th grader now enrolled in biology said that the online class was better than she had expected and that there were two teachers supervising the class. However, she also said that her class had never participated in any labs.

The lack of a biology teacher also impacts student learning in other subjects at Overbrook.

“Our only computer lab is now stuffed with biology students all day. We don’t get to use the computers for anything else,” said the teacher, who asked that her name not be printed.

After Dinniman’s press release, Philadelphia magazine published an article about the lack of a biology teacher at Overbrook. But it then corrected the story when the Philadelphia School District spokesperson who had originally confirmed the accuracy of the claim contacted the magazine again after the story was published. The spokesperson said that she had spoken with Overbrook’s principal and learned that five sections of Overbrook students were in fact learning biology, though they did not have a certified biology teacher.

On Monday, District officials made the Overbrook principal and an assistant superintendent available to the magazine to announce that a new biology teacher was in the pipeline to be hired. They credited the magazine with drawing attention to the situation.

District spokesperson Fernando Gallard confirmed to the Notebook that a new biology teacher is ready to accept a position at the school.

According to the District’s teacher vacancy list, there are biology vacancies at three other city high schools: Strawberry Mansion, Kensington Urban Academy, and Motivation High.