This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District will offer more than 2,500 kindergarten through 7th-grade students three weeks of reading and math enrichment in July because they did not have a highly qualified teacher for at least two-thirds of the year.
The lack of qualified substitutes and a high teacher vacancy rate this year were one of the main topics at a City Council hearing Monday about conditions in the District, convened by the Committee on Children and Youth and the Education Committee.
Councilwoman Helen Gym, chair of the Children and Youth Committee, framed the issue in the cash-strapped District as one of “basic human rights,” in which many schools – most serving the most vulnerable students – lack essential services, including enough counselors and nurses, updated curricula, modern classrooms, and safe buildings.
Gym held a series of education town hall-style meetings in different neighborhoods to compile community priorities for the District’s budget and said that attendees prioritized restoration of basic services over outsourcing, drastic school turnaround measures, and privatizing low-achieving schools. She noted that despite a citywide initiative to have every student read at grade level by grade 3, there are 64 "split classes" in grades K-3, in which students from different grade levels are combined, a practice that saves money by not hiring additional teachers.
Although such split classes can have benefits if they are done for pedagogical reasons – in some private schools, they are a selling point – they have to be carefully thought out to be effective and teachers must be given adequate training and support. That’s not the message she got from teachers in these schools, Gym said.
She was also concerned about the high teacher vacancy rate and the ill-fated decision to outsource the substitute service this year in an effort to improve the rate of coverage for absent teachers from what the District could do on its own.
The firm that was awarded the contract, Cherry Hill’s Source4Teachers, has been unable to approach the District’s own unsatisfactory “fill rate” for classrooms that have absent teachers, despite promises that it would staff 70 percent of classes on day one and 90 percent of classrooms by January. The District was unhappy with a “fill rate” of 56 percent; yesterday, Source4Teachers’ rate was 51 percent. For much of the fall, it did not climb out of the 20s.
Source4Teachers, Gym said, “made an outrageous promise that it had no means to deliver on.”
Gym, whose campaign for Council emphasized the strength of her education activism, called for the District to cancel the contract and build up its own capacity rather than seeking solutions in privatization and outsourcing. Chief Operating Officer Fran Burns said the District was exploring its options. School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff, a former principal, said she regretted her vote to hire the firm.
But Source4Teachers’ inability to fill vacancies isn’t the District’s only staffing problem. It has maintained a high vacancy rate for permanent teaching jobs for most of the year. The District said that 139 teacher positions are still vacant today; only some of them are staffed by qualified long-term subs.
Teachers in the District have worked without a raise or a new contract for nearly four years. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the SRC are still locked in combat over negotiating a new pact. The SRC tried to unilaterally cancel the contract and impose new benefit terms, but was stopped by the courts.
A wave of resignations and retirements has contributed to the high vacancy rate, and calling on overextended teachers to fill in for absent colleagues, in turn, fuels absenteeism.
Because of the staffing chaos, thousands of students have seen a succession of per diem subs or had their classes “covered” by other teachers in the building on an ad hoc basis.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that with nearly 8,500 teachers, the vacancy rate for the 139 openings is 1.6 percent. He acknowledged that this is higher than in the past and still affects thousands of students.
He added that the District hired 600 teachers last summer and 500 since September, but that turnover has been a problem. And there are shortages in some areas, including special education.
“It’s not like the District is not prioritizing hiring,” he said.
The summer enrichment classes will be offered to the 2,500 K-7 students who did not have a permanent highly qualified teacher – either a regular teacher or a certified long-term substitute – for at least two-thirds of the year. They will also be offered to special education students who do not qualify for the District’s extended-year program, to all English language learners, and to students who are not on grade level.
The classes will be offered July 6-28 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and students will be served breakfast and lunch. Locations will be announced, depending on demand.
Cheryl Logan, the District’s chief academic officer, initially said that more than 5,000 students might be eligible for the summer program, but Gallard said later that she was using outdated figures. The District has been contacting each school to get an accurate count, he said.
High school students who lacked fully certified teachers in subjects that they need for graduation can take credit recovery, Gallard said. He had no estimates for how many 8th- through 12th-grade teachers are affected.
Gym said that students should not be punished with summer school for the District’s failure to have enough qualified teachers.
Neff repeated that she hoped the District and the PFT could reach agreement on a contract this year, but so far there have not been signs of any breakthroughs. In its five-year plan, the District accounted for increased teacher salaries, said Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson.
Council members questioned Monson and Neff about the District’s fund balance this year of $88 million and the balance projected for next year of $144 million. These were, in part, a result of the teacher vacancies – what Monson called “bad savings.” Gym wanted to know why the District did not ask City Council for additional funds for next year. Monson said it would not be “prudent” given the fund balance in the short term, but he reiterated that the balance will turn into a deficit by 2019 without additional funds from its two main sources of income, the city and the state.
Gov. Wolf wants to distribute state education aid in a way that will help compensate Philadelphia for deep cuts made during the Corbett administration, but Republican legislators may challenge his unilateral action. Wolf’s plan would give the District an additional $76 million.