Grim day arrives for those facing school layoffs

Ending her first year teaching at Greenfield Elementary School, Natalie Hawtin pauses outside the school. One of the 3,859 Phila. district employees who are being laid off, Hawtin said of losing her dream job, "It was heartbreaking. I was devastated." (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Ending her first year teaching at Greenfield Elementary School, Natalie Hawtin pauses outside the school. One of the 3,859 Phila. district employees who are being laid off, Hawtin said of losing her dream job, "It was heartbreaking. I was devastated." (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 25, 2013

When Natalie Hawtin arrived in Philadelphia from Michigan with her teaching degree in 2010, she dropped by a school in Center City and was captivated by the students and staff.

Even after she landed another job in the School District, Hawtin would stroll past Greenfield Elementary School at Chestnut and 22d Streets, point to a third-story window, and say: "One day I'm going to teach there."

Hawtin's dream came true, and she began teaching second grade at Greenfield in September. Her parents were so thrilled, her father built cubbies, a reading bench, and a lectern from trees on the family property in Birch Run, Mich., and drove for two days to install them in her classroom.

Hawtin was such an enthusiastic, effective teacher that Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. was steered to her classroom when he made a surprise visit to Greenfield in the fall.

Now that the district is grappling with a $304 million shortfall, she's among the 3,859 district employees being laid off.

"It was heartbreaking," Hawtin, 31, said. "I was devastated."

The district's largest shedding of jobs in decades is wiping out entire categories, including school secretaries (307) and noontime aides (1,202), and nearly every assistant principal (127) and itinerant instrumental teacher (76).

Most of the 600 other teachers got pink slips based on seniority and will spend their last day on the job Monday. Their spots will be filled by instructors displaced from schools that cut staff or are closing.

The long roster of those facing unemployment next week includes Harvey Scribner, 45, who is losing his job teaching computer science at Crossroads Academy, a district-run alternative school in North Philadelphia.

Donna Granato, 59, a secretary with the district for 15 years, is being laid off from Constitution High School in Center City.

Judy Haughton, 48, who began teaching in the district in 1996, is losing her job as an assistant principal at University City High School.

"I get what they are doing, and I don't blame the administration," Haughton said. "To make their point about money, they are going to lay off critical people. It's like a tactic, but it is our lives they are messing with a little bit. . . . It is very difficult to be the person in the middle, the pawn, who has to take the hit."

Hite has said he hopes to restore most of the jobs if the district succeeds in its quest to obtain more funding to avert the doomsday scenario of opening schools in the fall with skeleton staffs.

He has asked for $60 million from the city and $120 million from the state. He also wants $133 million in labor concessions, mostly from the teachers' union.

Prospects are uncertain.

The city intends to provide as much as $28 million for the schools by improving tax collection. City Council has approved a $2-a-pack cigarette tax that is expected to raise $46 million, but it can't be imposed without state legislative approval.

And despite continuing talks, the legislature has not signed off on any plan to provide Philadelphia - or any other fiscally distressed school district - with additional state aid.

Educators from across the state will head to Harrisburg on Tuesday for a 1 p.m. rally at the Capitol to call for "full, fair funding" for public schools.

The thought of schools opening in the fall minus secretaries, assistant principals, noontime aides, and other support staff troubles those who still have jobs.

"I don't know how we're going to run without a secretary or noontime aides," said Debra B. Drossner, principal of Bayard Taylor School in Hunting Park.

Aides at her elementary school are outside when children arrive in the morning and supervise them in the lunchroom and at recess.

Alice Heller, principal of Crossroads Academy, said four of her seven teachers were being laid off, as well as the counselor she called "the lifeblood" of a school that enrolls eighth graders at risk of dropping out and helps them catch up so they can attend district high schools.

"For a small special school, the people are vital because they do so much outside their job description," Heller said.

Scribner, who began teaching technology at Crossroads in the fall, is one of those staffers. A retired National Guardsman who served in Bosnia and Egypt, he joined the district through the Troops to Teachers program in 2009.

He is also a veteran of district layoffs. After teaching three years at University City, he was cut during belt-tightening last June.

Granato, who has been the secretary at Constitution High since it opened seven years ago, said she could not imagine any school without a secretary.

"We are the first person you see in the main office," she said. "Who will be there in August to get the schools ready for the students in September? In most schools, there is one secretary in the office with no help.

"We have to be receptionist, secretary, nurse, finance officer, confidant - the list goes on and on. The principal relies on us, the teachers rely on us, the students rely on us, and the parents rely on us."

Haughton arrived at University City as a teacher in January 2012. She became an assistant principal in August and worked closely with the 10th graders - the largest class.

And because University City is one of 24 district schools that are closing, she said administrators have had the added tasks of transferring student records, packing supplies, taking inventory of computers and other equipment, and arranging job recommendations for staffers seeking new employment.

When Haughton began her career in 1996, the thought of being laid off never entered her mind. "You thought you would always have a job because there would always be schools," she said, "and here we are."

Parents at Greenfield are so upset Hawtin is losing her job they have mounted a letter-writing campaign on her behalf.

For her part, Hawtin is determined to return to Greenfield.

"I'm a firm believer that what you focus on, you get more of, so I'm trying to focus on the positive," she said. She's leaving the cubbies, the lectern, and the reading bench behind at Greenfield.

"This is sort of my investment back into Greenfield," she said, "my token of confidence that one day I'll be back."


Contact Martha Woodall

at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall

@phillynews.com.

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