‘It doesn’t feel legitimate’: William Penn SD takes the stand in Pa. school funding trial

A kindergarten teacher and athletic director testified Wednesday in a landmark trial over Pennsylvania’s system for funding public education.

Inside the classrooms, teachers have masked the crumbling building with brightly colored rugs, decorations, reading and play nooks, and educational materials

Inside the classrooms, teachers have masked the crumbling building with brightly colored rugs, decorations, reading and play nooks, and educational materials. (Dani Fresh for WHYY)

Nicole Miller loves teaching kindergarten. She says students at Evans Elementary, in the William Penn School District, show up excited to learn, with a strong sense of curiosity.

“They believe they can do anything,” she said.

They also arrive with a wide range of skills. Some have never held a pencil, while others already know how to read.

In a typical year, before the coronavirus pandemic, only about 40% of her students attended pre-K. This year, she said, the number is closer to 20%.

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“The biggest challenge is meeting the diverse needs of my students with just me in the classroom,” she said. “It’s 25 students on average, and then it’s just me.”

Miller testified as part of a landmark trial over Pennsylvania’s system for funding public education. William Penn is one of six plaintiff school districts suing state leaders, arguing the current funding model is unfair and unconstitutional. They’re joined by several parents and two statewide organizations.

William Penn, a suburban district in Delaware County, serves just under 5,000 students. About 58% are classified as economically disadvantaged. Eighty-eight percent are Black. The district has the second-highest tax rate in the state, but can’t raise enough for the kinds of support Miller believes her students need. According to the plaintiffs, the district needs $4,836 more per student to reach the state’s benchmark for adequate education funding.

On the stand, Miller described a few specific ways she thinks increased funding for better facilities and more staffing could yield stronger student outcomes.

Kindergartners do best in environments where they can fully immerse themselves, like a library center, she said, but her classroom is too small to accommodate that. Instead, she puts books in a bin and brings them to a table.

The program she uses to teach English Language Arts includes guided reading time, when students break into small groups to work on activities.

Miller said the program was designed with the assumption that there are other adults in the classroom who can help out with the small groups, but she’s on her own and only has time to work with two of the five breakout groups each class.

If a student is practicing something wrong, it might take a couple days for her to catch it.

“Say they’re practicing a particular letter, and they’re sorting what picture goes with the ‘T’ and what picture goes with the ‘N,’ and they’ve learned it the wrong way,” Miller said. “If that happens Monday and I don’t see them until Wednesday, then a misconception is formed.”

At this age, she said, the first way you learn something sticks, “so I’m trying to unstick something they’ve learned incorrectly.”

Miller spends her limited, more individualized time with that student “unpacking what they’ve been practicing incorrectly for two days and really, all that was needed was another me to intervene for maybe two minutes.”

That, she said, is how learning gaps start to form, which she says often widen with time.

Miller believes that with more funding — say, for a reading specialist or even an instructional assistant to “address the needs of students at their seats” — she could achieve more in the classroom.

“If I had more resources, I believe that I would be able to fill those learning gaps and better prepare my students for first grade and beyond, and would have the opportunity to do what I would love to do and preserve that enthusiasm about learning.”

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William Penn’s athletic director, Raphal Curry, also took the stand Wednesday, describing how inadequate funding has affected students both on and off the field.

“When we try to compete against other schools, we’re working from a place that’s already initially broken,” he said.

The district can’t host home track meets, because it doesn’t have a “legitimate track.”

The bleachers at one high school football field have been condemned and cordoned off with yellow tape, “so we cannot have fans in those stands [and] play a varsity game out there,” Curry said.

Transportation to and from games is a major expense, and the district has had to cancel games when there aren’t enough drivers.

William Penn also got rid of all freshman sports several years ago.

Curry described setting up a “pseudo-weight room” in a defunct shower in the boys’ locker room, using cast-off equipment donated from a school in Ohio including spray-painted rusty weights. He has since shifted the weight room to a smaller space, in a closet, but has been able to upgrade equipment.

Like Nicole Miller, Curry is a William Penn graduate. He said his own experience as a student-athlete helped him develop important qualities — leadership skills, discipline, confidence — that serve him well as an adult.

Being part of a sports team can be invaluable for students, Curry said. It can help them build critical skills, become more engaged in school, and even provide a path to a college scholarship.

Coaches can also serve as another form of support and intervention in students’ lives. Curry mentioned one young athlete who was failing her first period class and at risk of becoming ineligible to play. He took some time to investigate, and learned she regularly missed class because she was caring for her younger brother in the morning; he helped find a workaround, and “she was able to get on path.”

It’s just one example of how sports programs can help support students.

“If I could have better facilities, if I could have better transportation, if I could have more programs, I could affect more kids,” Curry said.

During cross-examination, an attorney for GOP lawmakers pointed out that even with challenges like an outdated track, William Penn has produced winning teams and successful athletes.

Throughout the trial, which began in early November, defense lawyers have argued that the state is legally responsible for supporting a “thorough and efficient system of education,” which they argue doesn’t include evening out all school funding disparities.

“Is not having adequate weight room facilities for student athletes a violation of the state constitution?” one attorney asked during opening statements. “We cannot conflate things that would be nice to have with things the constitution requires.”

Still, Curry said that showcasing the pseudo-weight room “is not so much to say, look how bad our space is. It’s to say that we don’t have what others have, and if we don’t have the resources, how are we going to find our ways to compete?”

He said it takes a tremendous amount of work — and workarounds — to create opportunities for students, and it’s hard on many levels for them to play against better-equipped schools.

For one, they’re competing for the same college scholarships, and students at wealthier schools are better able to train, and have more athletic opportunities.

“And then I’m also trying to get them to compete academically in school and say, ‘Well, hold on, these opportunities are out here for you,’” Curry said. “But it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel legitimate because you know that the other schools who are a couple of miles away have all of these things built in, and you don’t.”

Court is now in recess until the new year.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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