This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“Our principal was running around the whole school looking for paper,” recalled Leah Hood, a parent at Lingelbach Elementary in Germantown. “And he couldn’t find paper anywhere in the school.”
Instead, she said, the principal used their local city councilman’s office to print the materials he needed that day.
As in many Pennsylvania districts, schools in Philadelphia are suffering from an inadequate and inequitable state education funding system. Perennial austerity and budget cuts under the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett are having a lasting impact on students in the state’s largest city.
Amy Roat, who teaches English language learners at Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences, said that the responsibility to provide basics like paper has fallen on parents and teachers.
“We have not had workbooks in years, so everything we use has to be printed on paper that is not provided,” said Roat, also a leader of the Caucus of Working Educators , an activist group that challenged the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers leadership this year.
Roat recalled another incident at her school when representatives from Wells Fargo were visiting a classroom that had a mouse “running around the room.” When a colleague asked Roat whether they should move to another room, given the mouse problem, Roat responded, “No, all the rooms have mice.”
Rodent and cockroach infestations are common in District schools; principals say there is no money for adequate janitorial staff.
Hood said that Lingelbach’s principal and teachers are doing their best with what they have. Her son’s teacher has a Swiffer and a vacuum and cleans her own classroom (at the teacher’s own personal cost) each day. On Fridays, her students use donated supplies to give the classroom a thorough cleaning. Although the teacher makes it fun and it’s a good way to teach responsibility to 1st graders, this weekly routine is essentially to combat their pest problem.
But Philadelphia schools’ needs go beyond Lysol wipes and paper towels.
Many have huge maintenance problems. In May, a maintenance worker died from injuries he suffered when a boiler blew up at an East Mount Airy school in January.
“We have one of the nicer buildings,” Roat said, “but part of the building has been completely unheated for the past two winters.” She said a broken boiler needs parts and has not been fixed. “It’s like a Third World country.”
At the end of the school year, Roat has her students do a presentation. But the parents at her school cannot afford to buy markers, crayons, poster board and the other supplies needed for the project.
“I want them all to have an equal opportunity to get a good grade,” said Roat, “so I buy the materials myself.”
She estimates that this year she has spent more than $500 of her own money supplying items that should be covered by schools.
For Rob Connaire, a music teacher at McKinley Elementary school who has also recently worked at Stearne and Cayuga, that number is about $1,200 per year.
“There is no budget to repair instruments,” said Connaire, who struggled in high school himself and knows that programs such as music can be key to engaging students.
He finds buckets to use as drums, buys drumsticks, and spends much of his energy raising money to hold concerts and send choral students to programs like the Keystone State Boychoir. The money he raises from online crowdsourcing campaigns and from grants is not included in the amount he spends from his own wallet.
“Music was the only reason I finished high school,” he said.
For Connaire, Roat, and countless others, teaching is a calling. That is the only reason they keep coming back day after day. But many teachers are reaching their breaking point, becoming so burned out, Connaire said, that they simply leave. This puts added burden on the others.
Teachers have had no new contract nor raises in nearly four years, despite ever-increasing financial responsibilities.
“You should not have to choose between feeding your family and helping your students,” said Connaire. “What’s happening in the schools, it’s not just inconvenient, it’s criminal.”