Students, parents unsure what to expect at city schools

Posted: September 05, 2014

WHEN EMILY McCann, 15, walks into school Monday morning for the first time this fall, she isn't sure what to expect.

"We already only had one secretary in the office last year, so I don't know if there will be one at all," said McCann, a sophomore at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts. "The teachers are probably going to end up having to clean the bathrooms."

That uncertainty indicates how things have gone from bad to worse for the financially distressed district.

As about 135,000 students return to city public schools next week, they will have fewer school police and less maintenance to help address the district's $81 million deficit, even as three new high schools open. And if state lawmakers do not authorize a $2-per-pack cigarette tax for Philadelphia in the next few weeks, the district could face more than 1,000 layoffs, officials say - a number that includes teachers who have been working without a contract since last year.

"It makes me angry," said McCann, of Roxborough. "It makes me feel like my rights are being violated. If we don't have enough teachers and the class sizes go up to 40, it's going to be outrageously difficult to keep kids in order, let alone teach them."

At CAPA, at Broad and Christian streets in South Philadelphia, which had better conditions than many schools due to fundraising by parents, McCann said things were "a mess," with cuts to virtually every department and one counselor for more than 700 students. Her hope is that things haven't gotten worse.

"This is an important issue and people aren't paying enough attention to it," she said.

Kendra Brooks, of Nicetown, an activist and parent of three kids in the district, said she has been wrestling with questions all summer about conditions this year: What are classes going to look like? What will class sizes be? Will there be proper supports for students?

"I have a kindergartner, a middle school [student] and high school [student], so I have the whole gamut, so I'm very anxious about what this year brings," she said.

Brooks played an active role last spring in preventing Edward Steel School in Nicetown from being turned over to a charter operator. Despite meeting with district officials on ways to improve the school, the community is still fighting to get a crossing guard and a school police officer, she said.

"At this point, the way the district continually shows that they're not really caring about our children, I don't even have expectations. All I can do is hope and pray for the best for our children. You don't know what to expect," she said.

Despite the additional cuts, Superintendent William Hite said schools are ready. In fact, he said he feels better about the status of schools this year than he did a year ago before hundreds of teachers and guidance counselors were recalled.

"It just speaks to the remarkable work teachers are doing and principals are doing," said Hite, who visited schools all week. "I walked through schools Tuesday that were ready to receive children. That's because of the commitment and dedication of our teachers who were working two weeks before they were even required to come back."

Hite said teacher vacancies are less than 1 percent - better than this time a year ago - and that there are no principal vacancies.

Still, the superintendent acknowledged that resources remain insufficient and that he plans to be in Harrisburg, along with Mayor Nutter, to push for the cigarette tax when lawmakers return to session a week from Monday.

Steven Flemming, a teacher at John B. Kelly Elementary in Germantown, is not so optimistic about conditions. He said he still worries about safety and academic resources, and the challenges posed by the latest series of cuts.

He also sees another dilemma if schools are able to somehow weather the storm.

"I'm [going to] do my best to shield my students from all this stuff," he said. "But, then in the same token, I don't want our politicians and elected officials to say, 'They're doing all right [with less].' "


On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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