At Phila. high school, a daily struggle with budget cuts

Nicole Brown, who was laid off in June, hugs students after a memorial service for a former student who was recently slain. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Nicole Brown, who was laid off in June, hugs students after a memorial service for a former student who was recently slain. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 06, 2014

The principal parked her laptop on a student's desk at the junction of two second-floor corridors at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Her to-do list hovered in the hundreds, but it was 2 p.m., time for her to pull another shift as a hall monitor.

Not long ago, Debora Carrera had a climate manager, assistant principal, and aides to keep order in the hallways. But the Philadelphia School District's financial implosion has eviscerated school budgets, and now there are simply not enough adults to go around.

"It's harder," said Carrera, for seven years the respected leader of the neighborhood high school of 460 students. "We all have to wear more hats; some things we miss because we can only do so much. Every year, it gets less and less, and you wonder how much less can it get?"

With hundreds of millions cut from its budget, the district's financial picture is so dire that officials contemplated delaying the opening of school this year. Many buildings lack counselors, extracurricular activities, and key programs.

But the big numbers bury the thousands of individual stories. A recent day at KCAPA, as it is called, illustrates the human impact of the losses, how hard the adults who are left work to fill in the gaps, and how acutely the students feel the pinch.

Carrera's day began early at a town-hall meeting for juniors and seniors. A photo of Malcolm McCauley, projected on a screen, filled the room - a young man about to graduate, unsmiling, heartbreakingly handsome.

Students sobbed openly.

McCauley, a 2013 KCAPA graduate who had visited the school the week before, was shot dead a few days earlier. (Police said drugs were involved.)

The school doesn't have enough supports to cope fully with students' grief, and Carrera turned the weekly town hall into a memorial service.

"Nineteen years is just too young for someone to die," Carrera told her kids. Teachers and classmates offered stories of McCauley - how he liked cookies, how he insisted people call him "King," how sharp he looked at the prom in a white suit. The choir offered a haunting tribute. At one teacher's suggestion, teens jumped onto the stage and danced, because that's what Malcolm would have wanted.

When Nicole Brown slipped into the back of the room, shouts went up. Brown spent seven years as a KCAPA counselor but was laid off in June. The school had no permanent counselor for the first two months of the school year.

Brown came back for the memorial. Students surrounded her, hugging her, squeezing her hands. "I love you and I miss you so, so much," one girl told her.

Brown is still unemployed, with no health insurance and a 2-year-old son to take care of. But much of her time is spent worrying about her KCAPA kids.

"Their needs are so great," Brown said. "They need people to listen to them. I just don't know what they expect them to do with no resources."

Carrera, an energetic, cheerful 40-year-old, is a part-time pastor and the mother of three young boys. She jokes that running KCAPA puts bags under her eyes; it certainly makes her skip lunch most days. On the day of McCauley's memorial, she was having a bit of a tough time.

Her day was a whirl of class observations, student interactions, and meetings formal (talking through an incentive program that will give KCAPA students credits at a local sneaker store for each A they earn) and informal (a conversation in hushed tones with a girl with big, haunted eyes angry at the world). It would end late at night, after a play staged at the school.

KCAPA has some advantages - a $43 million, light-filled building that opened in 2010, an intentionally small student population, partnerships that give the school a dedicated college counselor, a program for ninth-grade boys particularly vulnerable to dropping out, and a proactive approach to discipline that includes peer mentorship.

But the challenges feel overwhelming some days. A full 100 percent of KCAPA students live below the poverty line, and one student in five requires special-education services. The school has a beautiful dance studio but no dance teacher; a photography class of 30 students shares eight cameras. Teachers have no books to give students to take home to read. There is no full-time nurse or psychologist. The library is closed. Some of the tasks usually performed by staff are left to students - collecting cellphones in the morning and returning them at dismissal, helping watch over hallways.

Second-year social studies teacher Andrew Biros says he spent $1,300 out of his own pocket on materials for school last year; he knows he will spend more this year. He bought a printer and ink to make senior projects possible, and students chip in $5 each to help defray the cost.

"I do it because I need to," Biros said. "Our goals have not shifted, but the resources allocated to us have. We fill in the gaps, but it's just not sustainable, long term."

When the members of the Class of 2014 were freshmen, the city schools' budget picture was different. There was money to pay for KCAPA staffers whose offices now sit empty. The school's basic operating budget was $3.3 million that year; now it is $2.2 million.

What's different this year to students?

"There's more fights," said Jacinda Cruz, 17. "When people are angry, they don't have anyone to talk to, so they fight."

"We have too many kids in class," said Keyannah Lane, 18. "I don't get Spanish, and the teacher doesn't have enough time to work with me. There's just too many of us."

The books they do have are broken, old, and graffitied, students said. School can be chaotic.

"When I was a freshman, it was impossible to cut class," said Frank Vera, 18. "[Nonteaching assistants] were everywhere. Now, it's easy to cut."

But somehow, KCAPA manages to hang together.

"It's a good school," said Omran Muatan, 18.

When the bell rings at 2:57 p.m., there's a line of kids waiting in Derrick Savage's cinematography room - to talk, to work, to run in the after-school club he has organized. There's no money to pay teachers for such extra jobs, but most perform them anyway.

"They have nowhere to go," Savage said of his students.

Savage grew up in a tough Queens neighborhood, and left a career in the entertainment business to build KCAPA's film program. He's got an easy rapport with the students - his speech at McCauley's memorial service, exhorting the teenagers to not let his death be in vain, clearly stirred them - and he reads their emotions carefully.

On the budget cuts, Savage is clear: "The emotional impact is the biggest thing. The kids know someone walked out on them. We try to keep them inspired, to keep believing that this all makes sense, but how can I tell them with a straight face that they can go to Hollywood when I can't even fix equipment when it breaks?"

Judith McPhaul's title is noontime aide, and she's paid to be in the building for three hours daily.

But she shows up at 8 a.m. and doesn't leave until the last bell. She patrols the hall, answers the phones, monitors the lunchroom, does the dozens of things that fall under the umbrella of helping students.

"You have to be the counselor. You have to be the mom. You have to be the police officer. You have to be the eyes, and the heart," said McPhaul, who hails from Kensington and is a district parent, with two girls in top city magnet schools.

But wearing all those hats is tough.

"It wears us out," McPhaul said. "Emotionally, I am worn out - we all are. For a lot of them, this is the only place they're safe."

As if on cue, a KCAPA student rushed up to McPhaul, showing off her senior photos, including one with a happy little boy sitting next to her. The student is raising her siblings alone, and the school is her anchor, its staff her family. Her attendance isn't perfect, but the staff is working with her to make sure she graduates.

It was just before dismissal time. Carrera's to-do list still hovered in the hundreds. But they will make sure she graduates, the principal vowed.

"Even though our kids are overwhelmed with so many problems, the resiliency and hope is just amazing," Carrera said. "In my job, I get to see miracles every day."


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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