As I reflected on the events of today, I began to think of my journey as a teacher here in Philadelphia. I began to think of all of the red flags that have gone up over the last ten years before getting to this point. Here is a run-down:
The State takes over the School District of Philadelphia and puts in an appointed board to run the District called the School Reform Commission (SRC), which is made up of appointees chosen mostly by the Governor and some by the Mayor of Philadelphia.
I move to Philadelphia immediately after graduating from college. I really want to be a teacher, but am not certified.
I apply to be a “Literacy Intern” with the Philadelphia School District. I am called in November and am placed at an elementary school in Southwest Philadelphia. My role is to support classroom teachers whose classrooms have gone over the legal limit. Basically, rather than hire certified teachers and make class sizes smaller, the District hired teachers with Emergency Certifications to “reduce class size” by pushing in a few hours every day. I worked in a Kindergarten room with 34 students. The teacher only had my help for about 2 hours a day. My official teaching career in Philadelphia begins.
I complete my student teaching in an unruly 1st grade classroom with a first-year teacher because my principal placed me there and learn quickly the steel and flexibility it takes to be a teacher Philadelphia. I learn that many teachers who were “vocal” in the school had been “written out of the budget” in previous years. That year, at least 4 of my colleague transfer out or quit because of the school administration.
I go to the District office to pick my first official “solo” teaching job and am told that there are no more positions available in the District. I am offered my choice of school from a list of a schools with a “high teacher turnover rate.” I look quickly at a map and pick a school.
When I arrive at my new school in West Philadelphia, I find out that the school lost 50% of their teachers from the previous year because the school was slated to enter the new (and short-lived) Corrective Action Region. With 3 positions still unfilled 3 days before school starts, I sign up to be the Science Teacher. We start the year with first-year teachers making up about 30% of the staff. During my second year, a first year teacher walks out and never comes back and never officially resigns. Myself and the other specialist teachers take turns covering the class for months.
Our school community inhabits a crumbling building with mold that causes asthma in some staff and a malfunctioning heating system that causes 2nd degree burns on a student who leans back on a hot radiator pipe. We survive a poor school climate with fights breaking out regularly and many unruly classrooms. We are designated an Empowerment School by the District, which means we are held under tighter scrutiny and must implement specific programs.
Our school community goes into turmoil when we are told that our building is being demolished and that we are being relocated and have 3 1/2 months to pack up a 100 year old building. Teachers are expected to teach and pack their rooms at the same time.
September 2009 – June 2009
My students are uprooted from their neighborhood and their school to be bused from the area of 58th and Media Streets to 59th Street and Baltimore Ave. They survive being forced into many hours a week of scripted Corrective Reading and Connected Math instruction whether the program works for them or not. Teachers are told that if the students aren’t learning what they are supposed to, it’s because the teacher did not stick to the script.
Students make do as Kindergarteners are forced to use bathrooms built for middle schoolers, as 4 busses running two routes bring 600 students to school and home every day, and as elementary age kids eat lunch in a cafeteria that can seat over 500 students. Students share the building with a “no excuses” charter school and find that their former classmates are not even allowed to say hi to them if they see each other in the hallway.
As the school year progresses, student behavior deteriorates and teachers have little to no support in a huge building with which they are not familiar.
January 23, 2010
The District teachers survive the shady approval of the new PFT contract, which sells the teachers out for Race to the Top money and brings in the era of Renaissance Schools.
January 28, 2010
We are alerted through a District letter in our school mailboxes that our school is on the list of possible Renaissance Schools and could be shut down and reorganized.
Our school community barely holds it together when our school’s name appears on the final list of Renaissance Schools. We aren’t even really sure what it means yet. There are a number of models presented to us. We eventually find out that we will be converted to a charter and will all be force transferred and have to re-apply for our positions if we decide to apply to the charter operator.
Our school’s parents barely survive the convoluted process of forming a School Advisory Committee and the marketing pitches by a variety of charter operators. We do not know who will be running the school, who will be teaching our students or whether the new building would be done in time. We will never get to teach in the new building as it will be turned over to the charter operator for the following school year.
My colleagues and I survive a number of meetings with various District staff who have no answers about the future of our jobs or our school community. We begin to pack up the building once again with no idea what the future holds.
Despite interviewing within the District, I make the hard decision to leave the District so I can keep doing what I love– teaching kids with computers. I take a 5 year Charter School Leave of Absence.
September 2010 – June 2013
While I have 3 great years of teaching, I also survive teaching with no contract as an “at-will” employee in a school staffed with a huge percentage of teachers under the age of 30 with very little teaching experience. I watch as my SDP colleagues continue to struggle with the new programs and requirements imposed upon schools and teachers by Superintendent Ackerman. I watch irate parents speak out about school closings. I watch students walk out of their classrooms in protest. I watch as the Renaissance School movement, a child of Washington, D.C.-style reform, turns more and more District schools over to “no excuses” charters. I watch as communities are torn apart by school closings and as some neighborhoods are left without a neighborhood school for their child to attend. I empathize with their fears and frustrations and I am glued to The Notebook everyday. I watch as Arlene Ackerman is removed by the SRC and walks away with a huge severance package, leaving a huge leadership hole. I watch with hope as William Hite is announced as the new Superintendent. I watch as Ackerman’s plans continue as planned and meetings about school closings are held at schools all over the City.
I ecstatically accept a position at the Science Leadership Academy’s new Beeber campus and am actually thrilled to come back to the District.
August 15, 2013
I attend the last minute meeting of the SRC, announced only 24 hours ahead of time, during which the SRC suspends entire sections of the Pennsylvania School Code and gives themselves all the power they need to break the union. I listen to community members and teachers tell the SRC that we can’t give our children the bare minimum, that this is a manufactured crisis and anyone who was paying attention knew we would end up here. They say that it’s unconscionable for students and their families and teachers to bare the brunt of the mistakes of others. I watch the SRC sit, stone-faced, until everyone had spoken and then proceed, without fanfare, to pass all but one of the resolutions to suspend parts of the school code. I knew, as I did in the 2010 contract approval, that the decision had already been made and nothing we said or did would stop it.
So why the trip down memory lane?
The point is, teachers, students, their families and entire communities here in Philadelphia have been on a rollercoaster of education reform for over a decade ever since the State took over in 2001 and put in the School Reform Commission. Teachers and community members have spoken out when they’ve seen problems. We discuss them in the teacher’s lounge or in our classrooms with colleagues or with our families at home. The problems with funding and managing the District have been in plain sight as long as I have worked in it. We are not at this point solely because of students, teachers, parents or community members. We are here because the people entrusted with the financial and educational well-being of Philadelphia’s children dropped the ball in a big way. Now, teachers have been made out to be the villains for sticking up for not what is in their contracts, but language that is written in the sections of the PA School Code that were just suspended. At the same time, students have been promised the bare minimum for their education and, in turn, their futures.
My question is, can the systems in place here in Philadelphia survive another 10 years of this?
I don’t have a lot of answers. I had to write this all down just to get my head straight after all of these years. One thing is for sure, this governing body that State put in place has not done its job. The people of Philadelphia feel helpless when it comes to the education of their children. We have thousands of young professionals who have made the choice to live in the City, to have children and buy homes here. Without a safe and strong public school to send their child to, we will watch these new neighbors flee in droves. Our city depends on strong public neighborhood schools. Let us elect our own school board and take back our City schools.