Many of Philadelphia’s 11,000 public school teachers are growing nervous about the increasing likelihood of layoffs.
What’s behind the looming changes, and how are teachers coping with the uncertainty?
A brewing storm of budget cuts, school closings and widespread school restructuring will almost certainly result in a flood of teacher reassignments and layoffs across the School District of Philadelphia later this spring. But with the first domino yet to fall, no one knows just how many teachers will be affected. The uncertainty is breeding fear, said Arlene Kempin, the chief personnel officer for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“I think the upheaval is going to be great. We’re talking about people who have been in school for a while,” she said. “They feel they know their students and families, they’ve worked with their colleagues for a number of years, they have children of their own. So people are upset, there’s no question about it.”
Teachers with the least seniority in each subject area are the most vulnerable to eventual layoffs. How many end up looking for work depends on the final size of a budget shortfall that could reach half a billion dollars. But more than just the inexperienced teachers are worried.
The district is also expected to close numerous schools, and at 18 new Renaissance Schools, more than 1,000 teachers must soon decide whether to reapply for their current jobs or seek reassignment elsewhere. Even for teachers such as Glenn McCarthy, who is in his fourth year teaching social studies at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, this process offer no guarantees.
“The big thing happening at Gratz now is that we’re going to be turned into a charter,” he said. “Personally, I’d really like to stay, but I have no idea what’s going to be available when this process is done.
Eventually, the hundreds of teachers likely to be displaced will compete for a limited number of positions around the district. How many openings will there be, and how many teachers will be out of a job when everything is said and done? It’s too early to speculate, said Estelle Matthews, the district’s chief talent and development officer.
“I think this is a stressful time for everybody right now, and to put fictitious numbers out there would not be good. I don’t want to alarm anybody,” she said. “As soon as we know the numbers, the teachers will know.
An early casualty
Rekha Bhatt, an English teacher at West Philadelphia High School, is one of the early casualties of the uncertainty. Bhatt loves her job and was named West’s teacher of the year in 2010, but says she can’t wait around to see what happens.
” It’s been a challenging year, even more so than my first year. I feel like my performance in the classroom is at its peak, but it’s hard when there are so many other things going on to really feel like I have a sense of control,” said Bhatt.
Bhatt , who has already decided she won’t be back in the district next year, may leave Philadelphia altogether. But more upsetting than her own uncertain future, she said, is what the looming upheaval will mean for the relationships between students and teachers across the city.
“The changes and the budget shortfalls and the layoffs are, yes, in part about people’s jobs and lives, but also about the really meaningful work that happens every single day in our schools,” she said.
Later this month, the district hopes to give school principals hard budget numbers to work with and to make its recommendations on school closures. Those moves will help kick-start a process that many expect to result in Philadelphia’s first large-scale teacher layoffs in 20 years.