After the latest round of cuts, Cook-Wissahickon parents continue to scrape up volunteers to keep their school afloat. But this time, parents worry they’ll have to shift efforts from education to the only thing more important — safety.
Budget cuts forced the school to lay off all but one lunchtime aide — a job parents consider essential to ensuring their children remain safe from each other and potential child abductors.
“I am not at all comfortable with my kids being unsupervised to this degree,” said Rebecca Poyourow, a parent. “You cannot have 160 kids in a schoolyard or a lunchroom with only one adult — or none.”
She added, “We have a great school, but when you take vital supports away, relationships deteriorate. No schools are immune to the problems that occur without adequate adult supervision.”
Due to state-wide slashes, Principal Karen Thomas said the school lost 1.3-percent — or $27,407 — of its operating budget for the 2011-12 school year.
In addition to recently cut positions — a three-day secretary, assistant principal and full-time police officer — the school has now been forced to lay off four of five lunchtime aides.
Cook-Wissahickon has three 45-minute lunch periods, each with 160 students. But instead of having five aides per lunch, there will only be one.
During lunch period, children are not only in the cafeteria, but are free to roam the schoolyard. With only one lunch aide, a large portion of students would be unsupervised.
Ensuring student safety
Home and School Association (HSA) president Carol Haslam said there is not only a worry to ensure bullying doesn’t happen, but abduction and runaways are also possible dangers.
Principal Thomas said the work has to be done regardless, and teachers and other staff will have to fill in the gaps.
But Thomas worries about staff, herself included, being overworked as it is.
“I am going to have to cover the second two lunches, which is going to pull me away from my duties,” she said. “I’m going to add another two hours to my day to get things done.”
Currently, Thomas said she stays after school until 7 p.m. to finish all of her daily work.
Besides the issue of overworked teachers, money may become even more scarce due to the changes — which are meant to save money.
Lunch aides work three hours daily and are paid between $12 and $15 an hour. But contracts state that teachers must be paid $40 per hour if they are not allowed their prep period.
Jose Peguero, whose daughter attends Cook-Wissahickon, said it makes no sense to pay more for something that could be done at less than half the cost.
“What we have now is the district spending $40 an hour for this coverage when they used to spend $15,” he said. “Are they really saving dollars?”
A shifting focus
To help ensure that expenses don’t rise, Haslam immediately mobilized and sent out an email calling for parents to volunteer whatever amount of time they can offer. She said there are a few parents who have volunteered their time, but the HSA intends to attempt to raise money to keep one of the lunch aides employed.
Haslam said cutting lunchtime aides is an issue of particular concern, and she’s worried parents will have to shift their focus on volunteering from supplementing extracurricular enrichment to ensuring safety.
Poyourow said she sees this happening and is sad to see enrichment activities go.
“It’s absolutely terrible because enrichment activities are vital and lead to better student academic achievement and fewer behavioral issues,” she said.
Cook-Wissahickon parents have a history of pulling together when the school is in need. To substitute for the loss of art classes and other learning experiences, the HSA recently put together a program of lunchtime and after school clubs run by volunteer parents.
“Until this happened we were concerned about the education of our kids,” Haslam said. “But now the focus is being ripped out from doing [these] things. It has completely been derailed.”
Asking for volunteers and donations
The school not only lost staff, but has also lost money allocated to materials such as paper.
Again, Thomas and Haslam are asking parents to step in.
“We’re asking parents — instead of giving your child’s teacher a mug or candy for Christmas — give them a ream of copy paper,” Thomas said. “And some parents have gone even further they’ve brought in a case of paper.”
Thomas said any volunteers — not just parents — are welcome to fill in as lunchtime aides. But they must pass all appropriate background checks and clearances.
Another way for community members to help, she said, is to donate supplies or money.
In addition to sending donations by mail, the HSA will soon be putting a paypal link on their website — cookwiss.com.
Haslam said the easiest way for parents and supporters alike to help is to reroute their PECO power through Viridian, signing up through the HSA website.
The company gives $2 monthly per household or business to those signed up under Cook-Wisssahickon.
Although these things would definitely help the school, Thomas asks Philadelphians everywhere to do one thing for the district as the whole.
“There’s money, there’s time, but the biggest thing is advocacy,” she said. “There needs to be a lot of pressure on the state to adequately fund schools.”
Matthew Grady contributed to this report.