'Leveling' at city schools is raising anxiety

School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. oversees a district that has no money to hire more teachers, so the existing faculty has to be moved around to meet enrollment needs.
School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. oversees a district that has no money to hire more teachers, so the existing faculty has to be moved around to meet enrollment needs. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 15, 2013

"It's called "leveling" – the process the Philadelphia School District uses in mid-October to shift teachers based on enrollment fluxes.

In the past, the district often hired more teachers to resolve problems of overcrowded classrooms.

But this year, when schools already are understaffed and the district has no money for more hires, planned teacher transfers are causing an uproar citywide.

For example, at A.S. Jenks, a high-performing K-4 elementary school in South Philadelphia, the threatened loss of a third-grade teacher means every grade except kindergarten will have "split grades" - classrooms made up of students from two grades.

Home and School president Kimberly Moore said the loss of that one teacher would cause 48 of Jenks's 308 children to move to other classrooms. "Split grades are terrible," said Moore, whose 8-year-old son, Stephen, would be affected.

This year's leveling scenario is so complicated, district officials said Friday that instead of making reassignments Tuesday as planned, they had postponed them until the week of Oct. 28.

"We wanted to take extra time to match the limited resources with student needs," district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

"In prior years, we had more ability to put in new personnel," he said. "This year, we are taking personnel away. Matching those actions will require more time, and we also want to make sure we are doing the best match possible."

Through leveling, some schools might receive additional teachers while others might lose some based on enrollment. Either scenario causes disruption, with students being reassigned to different classes.

According to Gallard, the goal is to keep class sizes in line with maximums under the current contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers: 30 students in kindergarten through third grade, and 33 for fourth grade and above.

The district is still reviewing enrollment figures, staffing levels, and student needs with the aim of eliminating overcrowded classes and combined grades.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said there were at least 100 split grades in schools across the district.

"This was something that was eliminated in the past because it is really, really bad for kids," Jordan said.

Gallard said officials did not yet know how many teachers and other staffers would be reassigned through leveling at the end of the month.

"We have no final number yet," he said.

In the meantime, sources said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and other high-ranking district officials had told principals not to tell staff, parents, or the media how leveling may affect their schools because plans were not yet final.

One e-mail sent Thursday specifically ordered principals "not to share personnel information," including the information about combined grades.

Gallard said he had not seen any e-mails telling principals to withhold information.

Sources said a facility like South Philadelphia High School could lose eight teachers because not as many students as expected transferred there from Bok High School, which closed in June. Meanwhile, nearby Furness High School could gain staffers because more students than projected went there.

W.B. Saul High School in Roxborough, one of a handful of agricultural high schools in the country, had been bracing for the loss of one and a quarter teaching positions. Veteran English instructor Elaine Roseman said Saul had fought back and the decision was overturned.

"We didn't lose a teacher, but we still have 20-some oversize classes," said Roseman, who has 36 juniors in one of her sections.

"They can level all they want," Roseman said, "but I don't know where they're going to put them."

At A.S. Jenks, the school initially hoped to get another second-grade teacher to handle an influx of 7-year-olds, Moore said. Instead, the school was told that it would lose a third-grade teacher and that the additional second graders would be sent to first-grade classrooms. Third and fourth graders would be in split grades, too.

Parents demonstrated outside the school last week in the rain. Moore said Hite told the parents he was considering their concern. She said Moore hopes Jenks gets to keep its teacher because the school does not have enough staff as it is.

"They are all trying their best," Moore said. "I love this school and all the people in it. They are just stretched very, very thin."


martha.woodall@phillynews.com

215-854-2789

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