Robbing Peter to pay Paul: 'Leveling' Philly schools in the time of budget crisis
It's gone from bad to worse.
Packed classrooms. Lack of a full-time guidance counselor. No education in arts or music.
Those were the complaints of parents at South Philadelphia's A.S. Jenks elementary school through the first month of school.
And now this.
On Monday, parents received word that that the district was removing another teacher from their school – this in addition to the teacher they lost to layoffs in June. As a result, the K-4 school will now serve its first through fourth grades only with classes that combine multiple grade-levels in one classroom.
Every first-grader will be in a class with second-graders. Some third-graders will be combined with fourth-graders; others will be with second-graders. Only the school's kindergarten students will not be affected.
"I'm so disgusted. When I got the letter, I just cried. I can't believe this is the education I need to give my children," said Jennifer Miller, parent of A.S. Jenks fourth-grader, Alyssa, and first-grader, Natalie.
Miller, who's now sent four complaints on behalf of her children to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, says the reshuffling will have negative consequences on Jenks' young students.
"Socially the kids are very different," she said. " I know my fourth-grader came home crying because she doesn't want to be with third-graders. It's just so much change for these children."
The decision didn't stem from pedagogical philosophy. Like most things within the Philadelphia school district these days, it came down to money – or the lack thereof.
In the letter Jenks Principal Siouda Douglas sent to parents Monday, she wrote: "I learned in a conference call that the district does not have money to fund all of our teaching staff."
Douglas called the news "devastating" and said the faculty would work to make the transition "as smooth as possible."
Based on seniority provisions, third-grade teacher Melissa Schwartz, a five-year district veteran, received notice that her tenure at Jenks would terminate Friday.
Schwartz couldn't be reached for comment. Douglas said she would speak, but only with district permission, which never came.
The change has come as a result of "leveling" – the process the school district employs every October to align its staffing projections with enrollment reality.
With leveling, if more students show up at X school than the district had projected, and fewer students show up at Y school, the district shuffles faculty from one to the other in an attempt to keep student-to-teacher ratios within the contracted maximums.
The district's contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers stipulates that K-3 teachers should have no more than 30 students, and 4-12 teachers have no more than 33. This year – in the wake of layoffs and turnover that have reduced the district's staff by about 3,000 – class sizes in some anecdotal instances have far exceeded the maximums through the first four weeks of school.
Large, urban school districts typically face "leveling" issues at much greater frequency than their rural and suburban counterparts. Not only are there more schools to choose from, but urban families tend to be unpredictably nomadic, which makes it difficult for a district such as Philadelphia to guess exactly how many kids are going to show up at a given school on the first day of classes.
Off-the-record conversations with principals and parents suggest many schools across the district will face leveling-related cuts in the coming weeks, with combination-grades expected to become more common in middle and elementary schools.
Last week, as reported in the Public School Notebook, students at Constitution High School staged a sit-in when they learned that leveling would trim $90,000 from their school's budget.
Although leveling occurs every year, it stands to have a much greater impact on schools this year as budget cuts have already reduced staffs districtwide to skeletal proportions. Shuffling faculty from one understaffed school to another in a way embodies the proverbial robbery of Peter to pay Paul.
A.S. Jenks will now have three combo classes of first- and second-graders, the largest class being 25 students.
The school will also have three combo classes of second- and third-graders, each with 30 students.
Third- and fourth-graders will be combined in two classes, each with 33 students. That exceeds the contracted maximum for third-grade teachers.
Jenks Home and School Association President Kim Moore said, just last week, parents remained hopeful that their school would gain a teacher. (The school already had one second- and third-grade combo class, which parents hoped leveling would fix). She says she's talked with many parents who are "confused" and "angry."
Ultimately, Moore fears the seemingly unending instability of the district will drive even more neighborhood parents away from public schools.
"My fear is that it's the beginning of the end for this school," Moore said. "We've already had so many challenges with local charter schools pulling our kids, and now this is just going to make it even worse."
Education advocate and leader of Parents United for Public Education Helen Gym says the change will especially hurt third-graders who must take the state-standardized Keystone exam this year.
"For children to be put in a split grade and to be held accountable [on state tests] to other children, who are not in a split grade, is a very, very serious issue," Gym said.
Combination classes tried before
Although some educational philosophy actually promotes the idea of merging grade levels, the practice long ago lost favor with Philadelphia parents. In 2007, parents worked with the administration of then-superintendent Paul Vallas to rid the district of combination classes.
Critics, including Gym, say combination classes can work, but only if a school chooses the system and properly trains its staff to work within it. Gym says it's a "pedagogical disaster" when districts implement it as a way to make up for budget shortfalls.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said it's "reprehensible" to put elementary school students in split classrooms.
"Children need the attention of their teachers," said Jordan. "Asking teachers to literally split themselves in half and expect that they and the students are going to meet the level of proficiency that is demanded according to the school district and our state assessments is just unfair."
Jenks parents say they want Gov. Tom Corbett to release the $45 million the state has been withholding from the school district. The state has repeatedly said it will do so only when the Philadelphia teachers union agrees to a "reform contract" with terms to the state's liking.
Parents also are calling on the School Reform Commission to institute immediate protections for small schools such as Jenks that tend to lose out when staffing decisions are based purely on enrollment data.
"It should not matter whether my child is in a school of 300 or a school of 1,200. Every child deserves a full-time guidance counselor, a full-time nurse, and a teacher for every grade," Moore said. "It's not rocket science. It's responsibility."
Responding to the parental outrage she's seen since making the announcement, Jenks principal Douglas sent parents a follow-up letter.
In it, the principal tells parents that their children would be reassigned in a way that ensures "students will be with friends with whom they are familiar."
She also assures parents that, despite the shuffle, curriculum will remain the same and that – in the lead-up to state testing – third-graders struggling academically will receive small-group support in reading and writing.
Despite the letters sent by Douglas, the district says it has not yet finalized any specific leveling decisions, and won't release data until after the process is complete on Oct. 15.
Spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed, though, that the process will see some schools lose teachers and be forced to combine grade levels.
But he said some schools will gain staff to allow some existing split-grade classrooms to be done away with.
Districtwide, approximately 100 classrooms have had split-grade classrooms since the beginning of the school year.
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