This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Christostomos Argerakis, a music teacher at Andrew Jackson Elementary School, has a question for both the School Reform Commission and his union’s leadership:
Why aren’t you meeting all day, every day, until you reach a contract agreement?
Argerakis, 46, is one of the victims of the four-year stalemate, unprecedented in the history of the city. During that time teachers like him have seen no raises, nor have they received bumps in pay for accumulating experience and additional coursework, both promised under the terms of the expired pact.
Now, Argerakis is determined to use his visibility to draw attention to the plight of teachers like him in trying to force a settlement. Simply put, he’s not sure how much longer he can go on like this – working extra hours on his own dime rehearsing and playing gigs with his middle school band, giving private drum lessons four nights a week, and teaching a one-credit course at his alma mater, the University of the Arts.
While there is some grant and foundation money – which he has raised – supporting the band, his school has little or no extra-curricular money to give teachers for working on afterschool activities.
“I don’t make my bills even close with my School District salary,” he said. “It’s about a 15-hour day for me, out of necessity,” he said.
The documentary’s director, Ben Kalina, is a neighborhood resident who decided he wanted to “humanize” the District’s continual money woes and the consequences of the contract stalemate.
“This is about people,” he said. “What does it take to be able to do for kids what they deserve?”
With nine years’ experience and a Master’s plus 30 credits, Argerakis, known as Mr. A, is getting paid as a fifth-year teacher with just a Master’s degree. “If we start the next school year with no contract and no changes in pay, I’ll be at a discrepancy of $19,000,” he said – what he should be earning, vs. what he actually is earning. As for how much total income he has lost over the past four years during the stalemate, he estimates it at nearly $40,000.
He doesn’t want to leave the school or the students whose lives he has unmistakably changed. But he worries he soon won’t have a choice.
“We’ve lost some great teachers in the past couple of years, they get offers,” said Argerakis of colleagues at Jackson. “Personally, I don’t want to be faced with that. I truly love my program. I love my students, I love my community, I love the families, but there’s no way I can justify passing up another position based just on that emotional connection.”
He adds: “I don’t think they’re trying to push people out, but they are making zero effort to keep them in.”
[See Wait for a teachers’ contract drags on for more information on the current state of negotiations.]
Ask union and District officials to answer Argerakis’ question – why aren’t they talking round-the-clock to solve this? – you get shrugs and sheepish explanations that while they are not meeting every day, the two sides are “in communication.” One issue for the District is paying their outside labor lawyers high hourly fees for their participation in face-to-face talks.
The relationship between the two sides is toxic, and the discourse regarding a new contract has taken place mostly in court. In October, 2014 the School Reform Commission sought to impose a contract on the union, but courts concluded that its action was beyond special powers it had been granted by the state. The two sides are battling over wages and benefits, but also longstanding practices around teacher placement and other so-called work rules.
Argerakis grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and lives in the row house where he grew up, which he bought from his parents after they retired to Florida. He attended Fitzpatrick elementary, LaBrum Middle, and George Washington High School. He went to California for a while to try to make it in the film industry as a composer, but said that while he did some significant work, it was a “dog eat dog” world and hard to make a good living at it. He came back to this area, got his teaching certification, and landed at Jackson.
The school has nearly 600 students this year and is racially and ethnically diverse. About a quarter of the students are African American, a quarter White, a third Latino, and nine percent Asian, with the most of the rest designated “other.” About 25 percent are English learners.
In his first two years at Jackson, he had a traditional choir and a recorder ensemble. But then he did a fundraiser for guitars, and “the kids took to them right away.” Agerakis started the rock band seven years ago, and now dozens of students are involved, reflecting the diversity of the school. He has the main ensemble made up of middle schoolers, mostly 6th through 8th graders, and a junior band of 2nd through 5th graders.
“With my junior band, I had 80 kids sign up this year,” he said. He holds them to high standards.
“They have to earn their way in,” he said. “It’s one thing to advance musically, but any behavioral issues won’t cut it, poor attendance, latenesses, everything.”
He rehearses the junior members in six to seven week sessions, 15 at a time. If they have perfect attendance, they are invited to stay for the next group.
“A small handful recognize they don’t want to make the commitment, some have other obligations, some can’t make the cut. From there next band emerges and evolves, on a variety of levels,” he said. At any one time, the main band has about 13 members.
Argerakis exposes them to music they had never heard before – from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to the Ronettes. The set list spans 70 years.
“I had two girls last year, siblings, they practically grew up in the band,” he said. “I’m talking five years, from 4th through 8th grade. We have 85 to 90 rehearsals a year, and it varies, but last year, we had about 20 gigs. Some of those kids, they are such a part of each others’ lives, with all sincerity, when you play together that many times, music is bonding. Some of those kids…they have difficult home lives. They spend so much time together, they practically live in my room. The name of the band came from a kid. She said, ‘It feels like a home to us, can we call it Home.’ It’ pretty fitting. That’s how it got its name.”
Kalina, who runs a video production company, said he would hear the music when he walked past the school, and see student-made posters in the neighborhood advertising their gigs. Intrigued, he went inside, and met Argerakis.
Not long after a parent asked him to help make a video for a grant application to buy overhead projectors. Before long, he knew he wanted to make a documentary about Jackson, its principal Lisa Ciaranca-Kaplan, and the band – how they struggle in the face of great needs, scarce resources, and a standoff between the union and the District that was demoralizing the staff. He spent the 2015-16 school year at Jackson and with the band.
The contract stalemate “is a big reason I’m making this,” Kalina said. “I wanted to humanize this. You have to be compensated in a way that is sustainable.”
Kalina, the parent of young children, said he had long thought about a way to “tell the story of public schools in Philly, to capture something important about them that would create more dialogue about what needs to happen in the District.”
But it “seemed impossible” to do a feature-length documentary about “how to crack the system and fix it.” Then he realized that the story of Ciaranca-Kaplan, Agerakis, and the little middle-school rock band “could touch people’s hearts a little bit” by simply and powerfully [highlighting the work of educators] who can make a difference and do make a difference under great odds.”
He is hoping to finish the half-hour documentary in time for airing on public television sometime in the spring or summer. Based on the trailer, there are lots of stunning moments and moving testimonials from children on how the band has impacted their lives.
He is still raising money through Go Fund Me to complete the editing. The campaign runs through the end of February.
“I had been looking around for a while,” he said. “I didn’t realize the story was right under my nose.”