Philly schools open with big concerns, big classes

 Students arrive for the first day at South Philadelphia High School. School officials are trying to ease concerns that receiving students from the now-closed Bok Technical High School will cause tension in the school. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Students arrive for the first day at South Philadelphia High School. School officials are trying to ease concerns that receiving students from the now-closed Bok Technical High School will cause tension in the school. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s public schools opened Monday with larger classes, missing programs, and 3,000 fewer employees. The school district is facing an unprecedented budget crisis after years of state and federal cutbacks, combined with rising pension and health-care costs.

District officials reported no major problems Monday. But on the ground level, the tight budget was already being felt throughout the city.

As upbeat middle-schoolers waited for class to start at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, swapping summer stories in all-blue uniforms, teacher Amy Roat told them that this year was going to be different.

“We’re not opening the doors today till 8 a.m.,” said Roat, an English-language instructor. “And we’re not going to have breakfast anymore in the cafeteria. You’re going to eat it during your advisory period.”

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The kids groaned.

And that was just the beginning. A sign Roat hung up outside of the school building outlined the staffing cuts in English and Spanish: From a guidance counselor to two math teachers to two science teachers, many will not be returning. A full-time music teacher and three part-time instrumental teachers won’t be here this year.

A school office staffer, an assistant principal, and four safety employees are also gone. Plus, students will lose 45 minutes of math instruction per day.

Parent Shahida Hicks knew about the school district’s budget problems. But she wasn’t expecting this.

“Math teachers? Science?” asked Hicks. “These are the most important things. Philadelphia has lost sight of what these kids need for their future.”

Ray Porreca, a special-education teacher, said his students would also feel the pain. The Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences used to place children with disabilities into classrooms with other kids. But now there isn’t enough personnel to do it.

“It’s almost like we’re re-segregating in a way,” said Porreca. “We’re telling these kids, ‘You have this special-ed label, and you need to live with it.'”

Inside the building, a long line of parents waited to register their kids for school and make other first-day requests.

Some said they had tried to call the school over the summer, but no one answered the phone. Budget cuts had left principals stranded during part of the break, with no secretaries to take calls.

Parent Ernell Meredith was dropping off paperwork Monday at the front office, which she said was clearly understaffed.

“They’re all running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” she said.

A similar story played out in schools across the city. Many were missing full-time guidance counselors, assistant principals, music teachers, librarians and nurses. Others had to do without Advanced Placement classes. Some didn’t have enough desks. And already, a few children reportedly needed grief counseling, but it wasn’t immediately available.

On paper at least, some classrooms were packed up to and even beyond the contracted maximum for certain grades: 33 kids. But district officials said that the actual attendance in schools was likely very different.

To make matters more complicated, approximately 9,000 students were displaced this year after the district shut down 24 schools.

At South Philadelphia High School, junior Michael Downing was wary about the influx of so many new students from the shuttered Bok Technical 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,” he said. “It’s going to be madness.”

Roxborough High School sophomore Trevor Loughrey, on the other hand, 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,” he said. “I made a lot last year.”

Some kids are now traveling through unknown neighborhoods to get to their new schools.

The “WalkSafePHL” initiative, a collaboration between the district, city government and SEPTA police, was supposed to address parents’ concerns about the different routes. City officials said that at least 260 trained volunteers would be stationed throughout neighborhoods to help steer children to school.

But Maurice Jones, president of the Home and School Association at West Philly’s Lea Elementary, said there were no volunteers to be found on Woodland, Chester and Kingsessing streets Monday morning.

“To be disingenuous about the fact there there was no team of volunteers or established plan…is deceptive at the least,” he said.

Anthony Murphy, executive director of the city’s Town Watch Integrated Services, insisted that the volunteers were on those streets. He could not provide a total number of volunteers throughout the city.

“Were they on every corner? No, they weren’t,” said Murphy. “We’re building a volunteer organization, and we’re trying to hold people to their commitments.”

While making the rounds at various schools Monday, Mayor Michael Nutter said that he understands parents’ concerns about the budget cutbacks.

“They want to make sure that their child, wherever they are going to school, is going to a good school,” he said. “A safe school.”

Superintendent William Hite also acknowledged that resources are thin throughout the school district.

“We still want guidance service in every school,” he said. “We need a lot more teachers for specialty-types of classrooms. We need music the full year, sports the full year.”

Hite is hoping to shore up the district’s budget, in part, by extracting $133 million in givebacks from the school district’s labor unions. He wants most of that money to come from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

If the teachers’ union agrees to major givebacks, the Corbett administration has promised to provide an extra $45 million to the city’s schools.

The PFT’s contract expired last month, and negotiations are ongoing.

Teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan said that the two sides remain far apart. He was grateful to take a break from negotiations Monday morning, during which he visited South Philly’s Academy at Palumbo.

As someone who spent years in a classroom, he couldn’t help but be enthused about the first day of school even in the midst of a budget crisis. He said that despite the cutbacks, he knew that school employees would do everything they could to provide a great education to the city’s kids.

“You see the kindergarteners,” he said, “and the first-graders who are excited because they’re now in the first grade. You see the expressions on their faces. And, you know, it’s infectious.”

But it was just one day, he said. There are 179 more to go.

That fact was not lost on parent activist Rebecca Poyourow, who tweeted about the first day of school late Monday.

“Some of the tragedies of #phillyeducation defunding will have manifested themselves on #philly1stday,” she said. “And some will be slow burning.”

Tom MacDonald Kevin McCorry and Aaron Moselle contributed to this report.

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