Parents come to the rescue of a cherished public school

Meredith principal Cindy Farlino accepts a check from Eleanor Koruba. Teachers also helped by forgoing afterschool pay.
Meredith principal Cindy Farlino accepts a check from Eleanor Koruba. Teachers also helped by forgoing afterschool pay. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 08, 2011

Like all city public schools, Meredith Elementary got bad news last week: Because of the Philadelphia School District's fiscal crisis, it would have to cut $30,370 from its budget.

Immediately.

For the small but high-achieving school, that would mean laying off support staff who keep students safe and on task.

Parents and teachers wept. They fumed. And then they mobilized.

Call it the Meredith Miracle - at pickup and drop-off Wednesday, parents handed over cash and checks big and small to principal Cindy Farlino.

"It was like It's a Wonderful Life," said Dawn Klemash, Meredith's Home and School Association president, conjuring that movie's image of a whole town streaming in with cash, checks, and coin jars to save George Bailey's skin.

Less than 24 hours after an emergency strategy session, parents had donated more than $15,000.

Teachers chipped in, too, volunteering to give up the extra money they are paid for running after-school clubs - about $5,000 for the rest of the school year.

The school council had calculated that if every Meredith family donated $68, it could avoid laying off two recess/lunchroom monitors and a classroom assistant in an overcrowded first-grade class.

So Farlino put out a robocall to parents. Home and School members sent an e-mail blast, asking for donations by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

They even provided a handy PayPal link for credit-card contributions, and money came in not just from Meredith parents, but from their friends and family, too. Two first graders even handed over some of their birthday money.

Farlino was incredulous.

"We're all sitting around looking at each other saying, 'Did that just happen?' " she said Wednesday. "We have an incredible community. I'm still floating."

The school, like many, still finds itself in a tough spot. To make the math work, Farlino has zeroed out her budget for the rest of the year, meaning that with over half of the school year left, she has no money left for things such as paper, books, and ink for school printers.

Schools started the year already cut close to the bone. A $629 million district shortfall announced last year meant less staff and fewer programs.

Even though Meredith's Home and School Association chipped in $14,500 over the summer to help absorb some of the cuts, "it's bare bones - myself and the counselor," Farlino said. "We run the lunchroom. We are the nurse three days a week."

The school lost its gifted-and-talented teacher. It has no assistant principal, no dean of students, no academic coach or reading and math teachers to work with struggling or high-achieving small groups of students.

Things are as dire as anyone has ever seen.

"This is the first time that I've seen the academic programs be affected by a budget," Farlino said. "We're no longer talking about fluff or support impact. We're talking about the ability to have kids achieve."

At pickup time Wednesday, the mood was mostly happy at the school, at Fifth and Fitzwater; Farlino beamed as parents handed her more checks.

Eleanor Koruba gave $300. The mother of second grader Anika, kindergartner Mariska, and 3-year-old Vaughn, who will attend Meredith in a few years, Koruba said she would do whatever it took to keep the close-knit public school intact.

"But it's scary," she said. "We have really generous, connected, resourceful parents. But we can't do this year after year."

Parent Leslie Tyler worries about equity issues - where are the miracles for the poorer schools?

"I celebrate because my children go to Meredith, but I have this aching feeling for schools that are going to have to do without, where the parents can't do this," said Tyler, who has a fourth grader and a second grader at the school.

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, where Tyler's husband is pastor, has adopted Nebinger Elementary, a school just a few blocks away from Meredith that has a much higher concentration of students from poor families.

Nebinger's budget was cut by $15,000, its principal told Tyler. Its biggest loss was a program that aids struggling readers.

"He doesn't have parents who can come up with $15,000 overnight," Tyler said.

Lea DiRusso, a Meredith special-education teacher who also has two children at the school, said she worried about further cuts. District officials have warned they need to make more reductions in the coming weeks, and DiRusso wonders where more money would come from.

"We already feel like we're taking advantage of parents' generosity, their good hearts," DiRusso said.

Meredith isn't the only school where people have mobilized to fill gaps.

Teachers at schools like Bache-Martin, Bregy, Fell, Girard, Key, Nebinger, and Waring also gave up pay for staffing extracurricular clubs.

At Science Leadership Academy, a Center City magnet, principal Chris Lehmann was able to stave off cuts because students, parents, and teachers have been fund-raising since news of the district's coming financial storm first hit last year.

SLA's "Fuel the Rocket" campaign is funding the school's $36,600 cut.

"Through this budget crisis, our parents have been tireless in giving whatever resources they have. Every little bit helps, even if it's a parent volunteering to come in and answer the phone for a few hours a week," Lehmann said.

SLA students have stepped up, too. One held a car wash this summer. As her senior project, Brenda Chhin is coordinating volunteers to keep the school library open because SLA lost its librarian to earlier cuts.

"I just wanted to help," Chhin said. "I just wanted to do something."

The latest reduction depleted SLA's rainy-day fund, though.

"The rocket," Lehmann said, "needs more fuel."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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