Annette John-Hall: For Philadelphia teachers, it's back to work after a harrowing summer

Robert Malara is pleased to be preparing his kindergarten classroom for the first day at Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia.
Robert Malara is pleased to be preparing his kindergarten classroom for the first day at Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 02, 2011

When we last checked on Philadelphia's public school teachers a few months ago, the situation was, to put it mildly, a hot mess.

More than 1,000 teachers had received pink slips, casualties of the district's $650 million budget gap. Simultaneously, there was the drama surrounding the 174 teachers who were laid off in favor of their supposedly exempt Promise Academy colleagues, many of whom had far less seniority.

Oh, and there were still 1,300 teaching positions yet to fill.

Is it me, or does it make any sense to dismiss 1,260 teachers when you have even more slots than that to fill?

The district tried to explain that the decision was based on a number of factors, including preliminary budget predictions and projected fallout from the beef between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the district.

I checked back at district offices Tuesday, where more than 100 teachers were getting their assignments. While things looked just as chaotic, it was a good kind of chaos. Among teachers and staffers there seemed to be a sense of anticipation and, quite frankly, a long-overdue peace.

I would even say the mood was upbeat.

Welcome to school days in the post-Arlene Ackerman era.

Anxiety-filled summer

After all, it was the departed superintendent, along with the School Reform Commission, who decided to save Promise Academy teachers from going through the grueling layoff process. The teachers' union disagreed and, last month, a judge ruled in the union's favor.

Still, that didn't prevent the laid-off, budget-cut teachers from dealing with an anxiety-filled summer - until a couple of weeks ago, when they began receiving letters telling them that their jobs had been reinstated.

"You're all restored from layoff - yay!" Elizabeth Moore, a district human resources manager, affirmed to a room full of teachers Tuesday in one of a half-dozen sessions the district has held this week. "Your benefits start Sept. 1" - sighs of relief - "your e-mail will start up Sept. 2."

The only drawback - seniority and subject need would determine whether teachers could return to their old schools.

"Come up and pick your school, and please make more than one selection," Moore urged. "The longer you take making your decision, the longer others have to wait."

Lives in the neighborhood

Robert Malara, 52, is one of the few teachers who lives in the community where he teaches, which was why returning to his old school, Jackson Elementary in South Philly, was so important to him.

Tuesday, Malara got his wish.

"I live a block away," the ecstatic kindergarten teacher said. "I know all the kids in this neighborhood. Isn't that what the district wants?"

Malara spent the better part of the summer at district headquarters inquiring about his job.

"I knew they were trying to pick up the pieces and get ready. I wasn't going to leave it in someone else's hands," he said.

Malara's classroom is a multicultural hodgepodge, including Hispanic, Asian, Algerian, and African American students. "We even have six or seven from Morocco," he said.

That's what he loves about it. Sure, the diversity presents challenges, but it isn't anything a dedicated teacher - with the help of interpreters during parent-teacher conferences - can't handle, he said.

"Last year every parent came to back-to-school night. Public school parents, students, teachers . . . we all get a bad rap, when [all] we all want is the best for our children."

Later that day, Malara headed to the teachers' store, where he planned to buy items for his classroom and, yes, supplies for his kids.

"On the first day, when I go in there and see their faces," he said, "my day is made."


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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