This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Under the pressure from administrative turnover and plunging PSSA results, school principals and high-level District officials have convened at Fels High School beginning last week to develop action steps for school improvement. And they brought their challenges with them.
Looming large is staffing uncertainty. Many of the District’s highest-needs schools are still scrambling to fill teacher vacancies. This comes on top of the continuing effects of counselor layoffs and other cutbacks.
“We went without a counselor for several years,” said Anthony Gordon, who is moving into his second year as principal of T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia. “It’s been tough with the lack of key staff.”
His school will begin this year with a part-time counselor.
As for vacancies, the District’s list as of midweek shows 169 teaching positions yet to be filled. Three of those vacancies are at T.M. Peirce.
The citywide number fluctuates daily as teachers are hired and moved around and does not include the number of vacancies for part-time teachers, secretaries, or staff members devoted to school climate.
The vacancy list also shows that two-thirds of the District’s high-needs schools, including Promise Academies, have at least one vacancy. This figure includes vacancies for grade-level and subject-specific teachers, student climate staff, and secretaries.
Principals are concerned about dealing with continued staffing uncertainty. One, who did not want to be quoted by name, stopped during the principals’ retreat to fret about how hard it was to move on to other tasks knowing she still needs to fill some staff positions.
"I couldn’t really enjoy vacation," she said.
Schools with many vacancies
Elkin Elementary School in Kensington, a K-4 school with 900 students, has nine vacancies – four grade teachers, four bilingual grade teachers, and a music teacher. Its profile is typical for a "hard-to-staff" school. More than eight in 10 of Elkin’s students are poor; nearly three-fourths of its students are Latino and most of the rest are African American. Nearly 20 percent are learning English.
"It’s a big challenge," said John Tupponce, the assistant superintendent in charge of the learning network that includes Elkin. Finding bilingual-certified grade teachers is always difficult, he said. He added that the school has a new principal, "and when you have transitions, it’s always tough for schools."
But, he added, he is confident that the new principal, Evelyn Nunez, has a vision and leadership style that will be able to build relationships and attract a stable team.
George Washington High School in the Far Northeast, with more than 1,500 students, lists eight vacancies. It is high-needs by any objective standard — nearly three-fourths of its student are considered low-income — but also one of the more diverse and least impoverished schools in the city.
Some of Washington’s vacancies are newly added teaching positions due to growing enrollment, said principal Gene Jones. For instance, some students from the closed charter school Truebright Academy are enrolling in Washington, he said. "People are choosing to come to Washington, and that’s a good thing for the District."
But some positions are harder to fill than others, even at Washington. Two special education positions – in science and art – have been open since the spring.
Kendra-Lee Rosati, the District’s acting chief talent officer, said that finding qualified candidates has gone well for the District this year, despite the slow timeline in filling positions.
“Right now, we have close to 400 teacher candidates who are eligible to be hired and about 700 people in our pipeline whom we are still vetting in the selection process,” said Rosati.
Over the next few weeks, the talent office is running recruitment fairs where principals can interview candidates and make offers on the spot. Rosati also said that the District is providing help for schools to find the proper people through a “staffing consultant” who understands the needs of individual schools for each learning network.
Fernando Gallard, District spokesperson, said that the District is treating all of the vacancies – even the ones created as a result of enrollment changes – as site-selected positions, meaning that the position is not being offered first to current teachers based on seniority.
Still, waiting until the last minute to staff up – which is the norm for many high-needs urban schools, certainly those in Philadelphia – makes it more difficult to build a cohesive team. Most suburban districts do their hiring far in advance.
Karen Kolsky, assistant superintendent and acting chief of the neighborhood schools, acknowledged that it does take time for new teachers to get acclimated to the culture of a school.
“I am confident that we will have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom beginning in September,” she said. “And the two days of new teacher orientation will allow the new hires to get used to the school’s systems.”
Raising the bar
In addition to issues relating to finding new teachers, principals say they are also struggling with how to address the skills of their current staff members. In interviews, several said they were concerned about whether teachers have the skills to teach in alignment with the new statewide tests and Pennsylvania Core standards.
Although the scores have not been officially released, the Pennsylvania Department of Education reports that the proficiency rates on the PSSA declined statewide after the test was significantly revamped to reflect the new standards. Some city principals reported that math proficiency rates dropped as much as 40 percentage points in their schools.
Even so, Superintendent William Hite said last week that Philadelphia’s scores in math did not plunge as precipitously as they did statewide.
“Our PSSA scores went way down, especially in math,” said one principal of a school in the Northeast. “One of my biggest problems is not having teachers trained to teach in a way that meets the standards of the new PSSA. This is a big wake-up call for us. We can’t keep doing the same things.”
Other principals expressed similar concerns about the capacity of teachers to change their practice.
“We need to develop differentiation methods to meet the needs of our students,” said Luke Hostetter, principal at Baldi Middle School, using the educators’ favored term for helping teachers adjust their approach to instruction for students with a range of skills and learning styles
“I’m looking forward to attacking our lack of rigor in questioning students,” said Kala Johnstone, principal at Leeds Middle School in East Mount Airy. “We need to integrate more higher-order thinking exercises into our lessons to get students where they need to be.”
For one thing, they’re definitely not writing enough, she said.
Asked about whether the newly hired teachers will be prepared to teach according to the new standards, Rosati replied that the teacher orientation and development being provided by the District will be sufficient.
A new tool for principals
A few of the workshops at the principals’ retreat focused on equipping school leaders with a framework known as the Plan-Do-Study-Act process. This helps principals set goals, break the goals down into actions, and communicate these actions to everyone in the building.
“This will be a living document that they can use to monitor their progress,” said Khadija Bright, an instructional leadership coach with the District who led a workshop on the model.
“Every year we set goals, but then things get in the way," she added. "Schools can keep themselves accountable with this framework. This can still be rolled out despite the challenges.”
Some principals said they appreciated that the District came up with a process they can use to make changes day by day.
“This plan will help me identify a quick way to turn things around,” said Brian Johnson, principal of Tilden Middle School. “With this, I won’t have to wait three years for results on something.”
Shakae Dupre’ Campbell, principal at Middle Years Alternative, said that the model provides “a street-level view of the problems and I can work with my team to specifically identify steps to address our issues.”
Meredith Mehra, the District’s director of professional development and programming, said that during the school year, operational crises can divert attention from the students. The sessions were designed to give principals strategies for keeping the focus on teaching and learning.
“During the school year the needs of kids tend to get deprioritized,” she said. “So we’re hoping this provides our school leaders with a time and space to think and reflect about the work that they do so that they can engage in conversations with colleagues, bounce ideas off of each other, take risks, and network with others who are facing similar challenges.”
Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting.