Christina Kimmel has taught art in three different schools over the past three years. The 30-year-old resident of East Falls thinks that her present job at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary will last through the next round of budget cuts, but she knows that she will have to work even harder to fundraise for art materials. This past Saturday morning, the school community gathered in the school’s parking lot to participate in a 5K fundraiser to benefit the art program. Students, parents, teachers, the principal and the custodian participated in the event. Those who didn’t run cheered with applause and cowbells as runners passed under a colorful handmade “Finish” sign.
Rebecca Poyourow, a parent and the secretary of the school’s Home and School Association, says that in spite of an ever-dwindling budget, principal Karen Thomas “has really been adamant towards keeping art and music.”
Adjusting to budget cuts
Poyourow was one of the organizers of the 5K, an event that she says showcases the “excellent parents” and “strong neighborhood involvement” of the Cook-Wissahickon community. Parent involvement is one element of adult supervision that cannot be affected by state budget cuts. Cook-Wissahickon has lost an assistant principal, classroom and lunch aides, and a school police officer.
“Just when you think it can’t get any worse — it gets worse,” said Principal Karen Thomas after she crossed the finish line. “How am I supposed to run safe lunches for hundreds of kids without any lunch aides?” she asked. This June, she fears that more support staff will receive layoff notices, including the building’s one remaining secretary. In addition to paperwork, one of the secretary’s main responsibilities is monitoring who enters and exits the school building.
Seeking a steady funding stream
Rebecca Poyourow is also concerned about the future of school security and the fate of the school’s counselor, who helps students select and apply to middle and high schools. She says the School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia School District need to allocate more money to traditional classrooms and less to charters. The school district is currently in the process of spending $139 million on charter schools over a five- year period. Recently, it has pledged $15 million to cyber charters.
“City council needs to step up,” said Karen Thomas. The principal wants to see a “funding stream” on the local level. Higher school taxes, notes Thomas, a Philadelphia resident, would be one way to regain and retain the employees and materials necessary for strong student performance.
Sara Anne Miller, a fourth grade parent, says that her daughter Hazel and her classmates didn’t have a textbook for the first half of the school year. In the fall, teachers gave parents the information to purchase class texts on Amazon.com if they wanted them. Until books arrived, Hazel’s teacher had one text for all of her students. In spite of such obstacles, Miller emphasizes her appreciation for the teachers of Cook-Wissahickon, who “do a phenomenal job” of “moving forward.” Because of their attitudes and creativity, “Hazel’s education has not suffered,” Miller said.
A dedicated school community
Principal Thomas is aware of the impact that school cuts can have on kids. “The stress level is not fair to the children,” she said. “We’re going to lose good teachers who are tired of getting laid off.”
Art teacher Christina Kimmel says she’s glad to be working at Cook-Wissahickon after being laid off from two other schools that downsized their programs. She calls her work “an important outlet” that offers students differentiated instruction: for example, by co-teaching with math teachers, Kimmel uses art education to help students learn basic geometry.
Michael Ruff is the school custodian. Although he doesn’t usually work on Saturday mornings, he arrived at 7 a.m. to unlock the building and begin setting up the registration and refreshment tables. He doesn’t mind, he said, because the early wake up call was “for a worthy cause.”
Ruff stood at the finish line and cheered as runners completed the race. At one point, he jumped in to help a struggling runner with the final 100 yards. Ruff has worked at schools for 36 years. He ranks Cook-Wissahickon as his favorite placement. “Everybody joins together and works together here,” he said. “It’s a place where you really want to come to work.”