Schools open for a system in turmoil

Philadelphia’s public schools open their doors today, welcoming 155,000 students back to a district that has undergone major changes since June.

For the first time since 2007, the School District of Philadelphia begins a new school year without Superintendent Arlene Ackerman at the helm. Last month, new acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery tried to strike a unifying note at a meeting of the district’s principals.

“Teamwork is the key,” Nunery said. “If you don’t have the teamwork, it ain’t gonna work. Because it’s that togetherness that’s gonna get us through the craziness that we sometimes face.”

But Nunery now heads a school district on the ropes, and not just because of the Ackerman controversies.

Across the city, schools are feeling the impact of unprecedented cuts in federal and state financial support. At Benjamin Franklin High School in North Philadelphia, Principal Christopher Johnson said his budget was slashed by 38 percent, which will mean sixteen fewer teachers, 11 more students per class, and the closing of a popular college support center.

“Were we hit hard? Yes,” Johnson said. “Did they take everything? Not even close.”

Like many in the Philadelphia School District, Johnson remains upbeat, confident his school can do more with less.

“We’re going to do what we have to do to make sure that the children are safe, to make sure that they get the best education they possibly can,” Johnson said. “And we’re going to work from the glass is half-full mindset. We’re going to do fine. We’re going to make it fine.”

This year’s bell-ringing ceremony is at historic West Philadelphia High School, which is moving into a new 53 million dollar building. It’s is one of the District’s three new Promise Academies, and will start the year with its fifth new principal in the past 13 months.

During a busy day of last minute back to school preparations, senior Da’Twan Nelson said all the change has been hard to keep up with.

“You have a change of superintendent as well as principal as well as teachers as well as buildings,” Nelson said. “It all happens so quickly, how do you expect to really embrace the change?”

Philadelphia’s parochial schools are set to open Wednesday, though high school teachers could be on strike if their contract dispute is not resolved.

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