City, suburban schools grappling with common problem

PHOTOS: SOLOMON LEACH / DAILY NEWS STAFF Hughes talks with Upper Dublin High students (from left) Tommy Reilly, Chanele Lomax and Jaelyn Neal during a tour of the school last week.
PHOTOS: SOLOMON LEACH / DAILY NEWS STAFF Hughes talks with Upper Dublin High students (from left) Tommy Reilly, Chanele Lomax and Jaelyn Neal during a tour of the school last week.
Posted: March 03, 2014

ROUGHLY 15 miles apart, Overbrook High and Upper Dublin High are geographically close - but the two schools are virtually worlds apart when it comes to their academic realities.

Upper Dublin, a suburban school, has a full production studio. Overbrook, an urban school, does not have a librarian.

Upper Dublin graduates about 99 percent of its students. Overbrook, on 59th Street near Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia, graduates fewer than 50 percent.

And yet, the two schools are grappling with the same issue affecting schools across the state - a drastic reduction in state funding in recent years.

The loss of dollars from Harrisburg has impacted the two schools in vastly different ways, as evidenced by a tour last week by state Sen. Vincent Hughes, minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, whose district covers both schools.

"During the day, we're . . . bare bones is the easiest way to say it, but we're cutting into bone now," Overbrook principal Shannon Mayfield told Hughes and his staffers. "We start at 7:41 [a.m.], we end at 2:45 [p.m.], and other than at lunch time" some teachers do not get a break. "And we have some teachers that are teaching straight through."

Last summer, the Philadelphia School District laid off thousands of teachers, administrators and support staff to help close a $304 million budget gap. As a result, Overbrook has only one assistant principal and two counselors for almost 1,000 students. Mayfield said the departure of one teacher this year forced a shift in 13 other teachers' schedules.

"We're trying to minimize the chaos," Mayfield said. "We're trying mightily, but we're not magicians."

Faheem Williams, a senior who's attended Overbrook all four years and is No. 1 in his class, said the constant cuts have made the school feel less like a family and led to more conflicts.

"I used to love this school. Ninth grade, that was pretty fun. I was a little scared," Williams said. But this year, he said, it's been "too many people moving in and out, too many teachers going, too many teachers coming, too many kids that's not accustomed to the Overbrook way, so they're doing what they want. Nobody going to classes."

At Upper Dublin, in Fort Washington, Montgomery County, the school board has raised property taxes 7.25 percent in the last two years to make up for a loss in state funding. It has also had to reduce staff, restructure administration and find savings through measures such as charging students $14 to take the PSAT, which the district once funded.

"Eighty-five percent of our funding is local taxes," said Upper Dublin School District Superintendent Michael Pladus, noting that taxpayers shoulder the burden.

That has meant the district's plan to incorporate more technology into learning has been delayed, officials said. It has also made it harder to close the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students.

"[The students] are coming here and we don't have the technology that we need," said Stephanie Hultquist, principal of Fort Washington Elementary and director of educational technology for the district.

Administrators at both schools also discussed the pressures of complying with state mandates like the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania Common Core standards given the lack of resources.

Gov. Corbett has proposed increasing education funding this year, but Hughes and several other lawmakers are pushing for more to make up for lost ground. This week, Hughes invited Corbett and state education officials to tour Overbrook to see the impact of the cuts.

"The truth of the matter is everybody wants the same thing," Hughes said during the tour. "They want great schools to send their kids to, so they can realize all their kids' dreams and maybe even some of their own dreams through their kids."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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