Philadelphia schools begin new year amid financial anxiety, staff shortages
After a summer filled with budget fights and worries that there wouldn't be enough money to open Philadelphia's public schools, students and teachers made it through the first day of classes Monday.
Guidance counselors were scarce, and most schools don't have an assistant principal, but teachers vowed to do their best with limited resources.
As Feltonville Middle School of Arts and Sciences students waited outside for class to start at the North Philadelphia school, teacher Amy Roat told them things will be different this year.
"We're not opening the doors till 8 a.m. We don't have enough staff to watch you guys in the morning. And we're not going to have breakfast anymore in the cafeteria. You're going to eat it during your advisory period," Roat said.
Roat posted a sign detailing all the staff positions left vacant for this school year:
two math teachers;
two science teachers;
one full-time music teacher;
three part-time instrumental teachers;
school ops (office staff);
four safety staff.
Parent Ernell Meredith said it was chaotic inside.
"It's no one here to help," said Meredith. "I mean, they all running around like chickens with their heads cut off."
Other parents said they had to register kids at the last minute because, when they called the district over the summer, no one answered the phone.
A warm welcome for Germantown kids at MLK High
At Martin Luther King High School, long lines of applauding well-wishers lined the pathways leading to the school on Stenton Avenue as students and teachers arrived.
The message, said principal William Wade, is simple: "We support you and hope you leave the school-funding battles to the adults so you can focus on learning."
"This is our work. We take teachable moments, and we teach. That's what we're doing. I expect it, and we're ready for it," he said. "I've been doing it for 24 years now."
The school's enrollment is expected to jump from 895 to roughly 1,300 students, with many of the new students coming from the now-closed Germantown High School.
The combination of layoffs and attrition means the school district has 3,000 fewer employees now than when the school year ended in June.
But Philadelphia superintendent William Hite said he still holds out hope that staffing levels will rise as the school year goes on.
"We still want guidance service in every school. We need a few more, a lot more assistant principals, we need a lot more teachers for specialty types of classrooms," said Hite. "We need music the full year, sports the full year, we need operational monies. So all those things are among the needs that we have."
Another need: Understanding with teachers
The district and the teachers union are negotiating a new contract to replace the one that expired in August. The district is seeking more than $100 million in concessions from teachers in the form of health-care contributions, work-rule changes and outright pay cuts. The union has offered to freeze salaries.
The district has more than savings riding on those negotiations. Gov. Tom Corbett's administration has promised to release $45 million in federal funding to Philadelphia if the district can win significant concessions from the teachers. Advocates have been trying to pressure Corbett to release the money now to no avail.
Mayor Michael Nutter made the rounds at various schools throughout the city, acknowledging that the conditions are far from ideal.
During his first campaign, Nutter highlighted the fact that his daughter attended Philadelphia public schools. The mayor said Monday that he understands parents' concerns.
"They want to make sure that their child, wherever they are going to school, is going to a good school, a safe school, to a school where there is enthusiasm from the principal on down to the maintenance staff, the teachers, the administrators and everyone else," Nutter said.
Nutter is still trying to convince City Council to approve dedicating a portion of Philadelphia's sales tax to the schools.
Students react to major changes
Since the district closed 24 schools over the summer, many kids are starting the year in an unfamiliar place. At Roxborough High School, 10th-grader Trevor Loughrey said he wasn't concerned about lots of new classmates coming over from the now-closed Germantown High.
"I'm trying to make new friends. I made a lot last year and trying to make some more this year," he said.
Kevina Butler, an 11th-grader, said she is focusing more on what she wants to achieve in the classroom.
"This school year I am looking forward to doing the PSATs, studying ... a lot of studying and just moving forward with my life," she said. "Going off to college, graduating, getting a scholarship."
At South Philadelphia High School, 11th-grader Michael Downing said he's wary about the influx of so many new students from the now closed Bok High School.
"Mashing two schools together that kind of have a rivalry is going to be like crazy because ... we kind of stay away from their part of the city, and they stay away from part of ours," said he said. "You put them together in one whole school, one whole classroom, one whole lunchroom, one whole hallway, it's going to be madness."
Malcolm Quarles came over from Bok for his senior year at Southern. No matter the changes or budget cuts, he said, nothing is going to stop him from graduating.
"I'm a stay-to-myself type of person, so I don't worry about none of that," said Quarles. "I mean, this feels like a school to me. You say 'hi,' say 'what's up' to everybody."
Brian Hickey, Tom MacDonald, Kevin McCorry, Aaron Moselle, Holly Otterbein, and Neema Roshania contributed to this report.
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