A different kind of senioritis

Posted: August 19, 2013

WHEN MY daughter entered kindergarten in the Philadelphia School District, my husband and I had the highest of hopes. They were quashed when she returned home on the first day.

"How was it?" we asked our normally ebullient 5-year-old.

"She screams a lot," she said dejectedly, referring to her teacher, a district veteran who was new to the school. Her seniority, we later learned, had allowed her first dibs on the gig.

In other words, the principal had no say in the teacher's hiring. She wasn't given a chance to interview a host of candidates and then select the teacher she felt was best for the job.

You know, the way people do in the real world.

Without going into details, let me say that the teacher's "screaming" turned out to be the least of parents' concerns. Within months, she was replaced.

The experience taught us two things: That the principal knew how to address problems in her building, which made us willing to give the place a second chance (it turned out to be great). And that the district's seniority rule was in serious need of an overhaul.

Yes, the rule can protect expert teachers from district bean counters who'd love to replace higher-paid, savvy veterans with cheap, compliant young hires.

But in the 12 years I've been a public-school parent, I've also seen the seniority rule protect slackers from consequences, damage the school climate and - most importantly - wreak havoc in the classroom.

I share this because on Thursday the School Reform Commission announced that schools will indeed open on time, now that money has been found to hire back about 1,000 district staffers who were laid off in June. Significantly, the SRC also announced a suspension of school codes that, among other things, affect employees' seniority rights.

This means that principals, if they choose to, will be able to hire back the same people they laid off instead of waiting to see if more senior employees in the district want the jobs.

This is huge.

Many schools are facing upheaval in September as they absorb thousands of students whose schools were closed at the end of the 2012-13 school year. South Philadelphia High School alone will add 630 students to its roster, thanks to the shuttering of Bok Technical High School.

You can only imagine how much more chaotic the change would be if there were upheaval in the front office, too. If the secretaries, counselors and aides being hired to fill the positions were as unfamiliar with the school as the students and parents learning their way around. If they were equally unfamiliar with the students who'd developed important relationships with prior staff.

Ask parents who have sent a kid to college whether they could've done so without the help of the high-school counselor who knew their teen well enough to know which university would be a great fit. Or which scholarship was worth applying for. Or which letters of recommendation would make the best impression on a college-admissions officer.

So, no, this is not the year to allow the seniority code to take precedence over maintaining stability for kids and their families.

Having said that, the suspension of the seniority code should nonetheless remain temporary. Once we're past the extraordinary and painful reshuffling of students from one school to another, the code should be reinstated until the district and the unions have a chance to revisit it in contract negotiations.

Because the reasons for its institution in the first place were valid. Long-time veterans recall horror stories about, for example, incompetent principals who ran their schools like fiefdoms. They stacked the classrooms with new young teachers too naïve to know when they were being steamrolled, or too frightened to speak up when they did.

Kids need wise, savvy teachers unafraid to advocate for their students' needs. The seniority code can help such teachers develop. But it can also allow the worst of them to wallow, often for years.

It needs an overhaul. But a thoughtful one, done without the pressure we've all been feeling as we wondered whether our kids would be back in the classroom come September - or out of school and out of luck.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

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