Teachers want a say in Philadelphia School District plans

Lauren Gavioli and Ashley Fanto get their message out at Alain Locke School, at Haverford and 46th Street. "There's a new buzzword every year," said Gavioli. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Lauren Gavioli and Ashley Fanto get their message out at Alain Locke School, at Haverford and 46th Street. "There's a new buzzword every year," said Gavioli. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 21, 2012

The flyers were not subtle, bold black text on fluorescent yellow sheets: “FOR SALE. Your Child’s Education to the Highest Bidder.”

With the nearly broke Philadelphia School District poised to essentially blow up its current structure, close 64 schools over the next five years, and shift thousands more students to charter schools, the time for subtlety is gone, said teachers who picked up picket signs and took to the streets Friday.

“I truly believe in public education, and even teachers who truly believe in public education are starting to lose hope,” said Ashley Fanto, a third-year teacher at Locke Elementary in West Philadelphia.

Like Fanto, teachers around the city say they plan to wear red and hold “informational pickets” before school every Friday until the School Reform Commission votes on its transformation blueprint.

Officials initially said they could vote on the plan at the end of May, when they adopt a $2.5 billion budget. But they have backed away from that, and a spokesman said Friday that while no date has been set for adoption, a vote is not likely until 2013. The extra time will be used to gather more feedback.

“The top-level administrators are shirking their responsibility for good school management and fiscal responsibility,” Lincoln High business teacher Rodney Wyffles said Friday, waving his “Budget Cuts Hurt Kids” sign to the honking cars that passed on Rowland Avenue. “It has nothing to do with the quality of education. It’s all about dollars.”

Wyffles and others object to a plan to create “achievement networks,” groups of 25 schools run either by district staff or outside nonprofit providers such as universities or charter organizations. The achievement networks would represent a “breaking-apart of the district,” chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen has said.

SRC members have said that the public perception of their plan is wrong, that the coming transformation is not privatization, that the financial crisis is real and dire.

They say the changes are motivated by what’s best for children, not by money. Also, that their proposal is not final and will be informed by public input being gathered now.

Most of all, they say that serious change is needed. Now.

“What we do know through lots of history and evidence and practice is that the current structure doesn’t work,” SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos told City Council in April.

Teachers are suspicious of a plan that smells even vaguely like the experiment of the early-to-mid-2000s during the Paul Vallas administration, when dozens of schools were handed over to private providers with unimpressive results.

“There’s a new buzzword every year,” said Lauren Gavioli, a Locke kindergarten teacher. “This is not a new thing, having private organizations in the district. It didn’t work before.”

Kelly Wreath, a fifth-grade teacher at Fitzpatrick Elementary in the far Northeast, wants to know why teachers, parents, and students weren’t looped in before officials presented the blueprint last month.

“They’re making unilateral changes without consulting us, and we’re in classrooms every day,” Wreath said. “No one knows these kids better than us. The parents feel left out, too.”

Parent Jennifer Cullen donned her red shirt Friday, a sign of her frustration with the district’s plans.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Cullen, whose three children attend Fitzpatrick. “If you talk up charters but not the traditional public schools, that’s where people will go. It’s time for the district to put up and shut up — to stand up for its schools.”

The district faces a $218 million budget shortfall for the 2012-13 school year, but the effects of the more than $700 million in cuts made this school year linger.

Like schools across the city, Fitzpatrick was hit hard by two rounds of cuts this school year. Teachers gave up their extracurricular pay to help the cause, but the 850-student school still lost support staff, a full-time nurse, and full-time services for English-language learners.

“Kids who don’t know a word of English only have services three days a week,” said Lynda Sukiennik, Fitzpatrick’s ESL teacher. She now works two days a week at another school as well.

Carolyn Hayes, a veteran history teacher at Lincoln, laments swelling class sizes and fewer adults to monitor hallways.

“With our numbers going up, you can’t get to every kid,” Hayes said. “We have no paraprofessionals left. No classroom aides.”

Charter schools have their place, Hayes said, but many are worried that their proliferation will leave the district schools with only stellar schools like Masterman, Central, and Penn Alexander and neighborhood schools where the students nobody else wants are relegated.

Charter schools can employ uncertified teachers, Hayes pointed out. And they can — and do — kick problem students out.

“Right before the PSSAs, right after Christmas, it’s a neverending stream of kids from charters,” she said.

Teachers are worried about their students — but frankly, they’re also worried about their jobs, their paychecks, their benefits, said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

District leaders are banking on $156 million in concessions in the 2012-13 school year from unions, and though Jordan says he’s not budging, the SRC has the power under state law to impose terms on labor unions.

With no list of which schools will close — 40 in 2013 and six every year after that through 2017 — everybody wonders if his or her school is in the line of fire.

“People are uneasy,” Jordan said.

That’s an understatement, said Fanto, of Locke.

“No one knows what’s going on,” she said. “You ask the union, they don’t know. You read stuff in the paper, but the district doesn’t tell you much. It’s very uncertain.”

Louise Jordan, a special-education teacher at Lincoln, isn’t worried about losing her job — with 31 years in the district, she knows she’ll be fine. But although she’s seen reform movements come and go, none has worried her quite like this one, she said.

But she’s got a solution, Jordan said.

“Fix what we have,” she said. “Give us what we need.”

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

Community input on the 2012-13 budget and the school district’s transformation blueprint is invited at a meeting scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Girls’ High, 1400 W. Olney Ave.

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