Schools opened Monday for 114,000 Philadelphia students in a district still facing a staff shortage and struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic, which resulted in closed school buildings for more than a year and student learning loss that is still being assessed.
Despite these challenges, new Superintendent Tony Watlington exuded optimism and confidence as he, Mayor Jim Kenney, and other officials celebrated the first day of classes.
“I love the first day of school,” Watlington said at the Paul Laurence Dunbar School in North Philadelphia. “We’re going to do our very best, our absolute very best, every single day, to create life-changing opportunities … so that our children can experience life-changing outcomes.”
As a reminder of the variety of hurdles schools face, Watlington announced late Monday that 100 schools would close three hours early on Tuesday and Wednesday due to concerns about severe heat.
In many ways, Dunbar represents the difficulties and the promise of the new year that will pose major tests for Watlington in particular, who took over for former superintendent William Hite in June. Located in the heart of North Philadelphia, the school has a nearly 100% poverty rate. Last year, it enrolled only about 250 students, putting it at half capacity. Enrollment declines in cities across the country have emerged as a significant concern for many schools.
“The pandemic has had a lingering effect on us, and may continue to present some challenges,” Watlington said.
At the same time, the district expects 350 students to enroll at Dunbar this year, an increase of roughly 40% from last year, Assistant Superintendent Ariel Lajara said. The school is reportedly fully staffed. And the school is joining the city’s community school initiative that aims to provide better services and support to students in need.
To welcome students back, Watlington visited six schools across the city, including one that became the first in Philadelphia’s history to fly the LGBTQ pride flag, a few months after it was renamed for an LGBTQ civil rights leader.
Citywide, there are still around 200 teacher vacancies, Watlington said, adding that all classrooms will be staffed this week with “credentialed” educators. He said the schools are 98% staffed, a slight improvement from the 97.4% figure he used last week.
Recruitment is continuing, he said, including through the website Teach in Philly.
“We want to really make sure to understand what our children are telling us,” Watlington said. “We’re trying to make sure that this year we attend to the learning loss they experienced and we also want to help them to reacclimate to a normal school year, if there’s such a thing as a normal school year.”
Kenney, meanwhile, praised Watlington as “the best choice” to lead the district forward.
Daniel Mina, in his second year as Dunbar’s principal, echoed the emphasis on a “fresh start” and said it is important for teachers and other members of the school community to tend to students’ emotional as well as academic needs.
“One of our school priorities here at Dunbar is joy,” he said. “We know in order for your children to love school, not only do they have to be physically and emotionally safe, but more than that, they have to feel joy at school.”
Dunbar is one of three new community schools, which work in close partnership with the city to help families receive needed social services. The community schools program, launched in 2017, is a signature initiative of the Kenney administration and City Council President Darrell C. Clarke. Along with Dunbar, Add B. Anderson Elementary and Frankford High School were added to the program this year, bringing the total to 20.
Maxwell Akuamoah-Boateng, the city’s director of operations for community schools, said that they have been working all summer to consult parents and residents, manage partnerships with non-profit organizations, and develop a plan for what would most benefit Dunbar.
An important component is “out of school time,” he said, citing the importance “of engaging kids on a social level” and keeping them “off the streets.”
His office will be working with teachers and staff “to see what they are already doing that is working and what we can do to supplement that,” Akuamoah-Boateng said.
Members of Temple University’s athletic teams welcomed Dunbar students on their first day, cheering on students as they walked on a red carpet at the school door. Temple is one of Dunbar’s partners in the community schools program.
Kensington school first to fly pride flag
Elswhere, Gloria Casarez Elementary School in Kensington made history Monday as the first district school to fly the pride flag in honor of its namesake, who was an advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community in Philadelphia.
In an effort to remove the names of racist historical figures from school buildings, the Philadelphia Board of Education voted in May to change the name of the school to honor Casarez, who attended the school when it was Philip H. Sheridan Elementary School. Sheridan is considered one of the most famous Union generals of the Civil War, but is also well-known for overseeing horrific campaigns against Native Americans.
Casarez, who was the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, died in 2014 from breast cancer.
“Like Gloria, each of you is a leader and a change maker with the power to positively change the school and your community,” Tricia Dressel, Casarez’s wife, told students at the school Monday. “Today you walk through those doors and hallways with pride, for you are the teachers and students of the absolute best school in the city of Philadelphia.”
Watlington said the school’s renaming was a “very bold step” towards ensuring that “students and families feel empowered, valued and respected.” The current head of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs, Celena Morrison, said Monday’s events at the school represented a monument to Casarez’s legacy.
And Casarez Principal Awilda Aguila Balbuena used the occasion to stress the importance of representation to the students: “When we are able to see people, we are better able to understand and grasp who they are.”
Like at Dunbar, the number of students at Casarez Elementary seems to be on the rise. Around 465 students were greeted by school leaders on their first day back to class, an increase from around 415 last year, according to Casarez Assistant Principal Julio Nuñez, an increase of about 12%. The play area was filled Monday morning with students lined up by grades, with their teachers in front.
Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at email@example.com.