District ready for new year without the drama of Ackerman

Officers walk the hallways of Sayre High in West Philly on Friday. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff)
Officers walk the hallways of Sayre High in West Philly on Friday. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff)
Posted: September 06, 2011

ALTHOUGH she will be nowhere to be found today, it's impossible to talk about the return of 155,000 students to classrooms in the Philadelphia School District without mentioning Arlene Ackerman.

Without mentioning the $905,000 buyout it took to force her out. Without mentioning the turmoil her time in Philadelphia caused and what her long, drawn-out exit threatened to do to the morale of the thousands of teachers, principals and others who will make sure schools welcome students with open arms today.

But despite the chaos, teachers insist morale has remained high and principals say the drama has not deterred them.

That doesn't mean they're not happy to see a drama-free start to a new school year, though.

"I think that there's a sense of relief that the entire story with Ackerman has played out," said Joseph Fafara, who was force-transferred to Dobbins High School from Germantown High this year. "The end of last year, with the layoffs and the acrimony and the drama of the summer, was more than anybody needed to have."

'About the children'

Staffers at the Joseph W. Catharine School in the far reaches of Southwest Philadelphia aren't only geographically removed from the chaos at district headquarters. They're mentally distant from it, too.

"Everything we do at this school is about the children," said principal Carol Kofsky, who's going into her eighth year at the K-5 school at 66th Street and Chester Avenue. "We don't worry about all that."

Kofsky said that Catharine's 45 teachers are "like a family" and that she's constantly looking outside the district for money to keep extracurricular programs, the arts and technology like interactive whiteboards in classrooms.

Kofsky said several teachers spent much of the summer - unpaid and unrequested - getting ready for the school year. Most spent last week preparing their classrooms and hallways with bold inspirational posters and "welcome" bulletin boards with every student's name.

"What happens with Dr. Ackerman doesn't affect us," fifth-grade teacher Jane Rubeo said as she tidied gift bags she prepared for her students. "This is just about our kids."

At Southwark Elementary School, 9th and Mifflin streets in South Philadelphia, freshly waxed floors and painted walls shined last week.

The walls were given a fresh coat of paint from volunteers from D.i.D., a health-care marketing company in Fort Washington, said principal Margaret Chin.

"They said our dragon, that's our school logo, looked too scary for children," she said. "So they painted a kid-friendly dragon for us."

Notices written in English, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Spanish and Burmese hang from the front door at the extremely diverse school. In Kim Domsky's first-grade classroom, American, Mexican, Chinese and Cambodian flags hang in the windows.

"I still need to get one more, from Vietnam," she said, pointing to one empty window in the room.

Chin also showed off a library renovated with a state grant at the school, which is more than 100 years old. She said that when the teachers gathered for a meeting last Thursday, one educator who has worked there for more than a decade told her that she "could never imagine this library looking like this."

"You know what, where there's a will there's a way," Chin said, "so you can turn our children around, too."

More cuts?

The district still has to find $75 million in concessions from its unions, a task that has proved difficult. And with Republican Gov. Corbett in office and a Republican-controlled Legislature, the chances of more cash coming to the district when budget time next comes around is slim.

"I definitely think about it, but I also know music is really important," said Darcy Weinhold, who has taught music for five years at Catharine. "So I hope they'll keep us around."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that many of his members have expressed concern over the district's ability to open schools. He said he worries whether schools will have enough adults supervising students.

"When opening school on the first day for children, you've got to have a smooth operation," he said. "If [students] find nobody in the hallway supervising them, they think they can cut class, and that begins the problem."

As of Friday, district officials said they had filled all but one vacancy at the school level.

But a district maintenance worker, who did not want his name or school identified, blasted the district's poor timing with laying off several of his colleagues just days before school started.

"I have one question," he said. "How do you get maintenance workers motivated when they know they are getting laid off?"

Meanwhile, another maintenance worker working outside his school last week said that because of layoffs, maintenance workers were stretched very thin in order to get schools ready in time for today.

Although he asked that neither his name nor school be mentioned, his thoughts neatly summed up where things stand as the district prepares to emerge from a summer of discontent.

"We are tired," he said, "but we will be ready."

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