Short on teachers, aides and copy paper, Philly schools prepare to open anyway

     Chris Lehmann, at right, the principal and founder of the Science Leadership Academy, is being honored with the  Harold W. McGraw Jr. education award. It's known in school circles as the Nobel Prize of the educational community. (NewsWorks file photo)

    Chris Lehmann, at right, the principal and founder of the Science Leadership Academy, is being honored with the Harold W. McGraw Jr. education award. It's known in school circles as the Nobel Prize of the educational community. (NewsWorks file photo)

    With classes set to begin Monday morning, here’s the on-the-ground view of what life in a traditional Philadelphia public school looks like:

    Fewer staff. More students. Basic supplies at a premium. Money for discretionary spending non-existent.

    For a school district that’s closed 24 schools and shed 3,000 staffers over the past few months, it’s the most contentious school opening in recent memory.

    One day this week, Kristin Luebbert leaned over the copy machine at the Bache-Martin School in the city’s Fairmount section, making duplicates of her first-day-of-school icebreaker.

    “It just asks them, like, ‘What was the best day of my life? Who’s my favorite relative?’ Just little things that make them feel at ease,” she said.

    The pieces of paper that whir through the hulking machine are her own. Luebbert, a reading and social studies teacher, had to go out and buy it herself.

    “This is my free ream of paper that I got from Staples last week and got a rebate for, so that’s where I got my paper,” she said. “Everybody was down there getting their paper because otherwise we’re really not going to have any.”

    When she’s done making copies, she leans down and reopens the tray to the machine.

    “Yeah, you’ve got to make sure you take all your paper,” she said. “Although we’re really nice to each other and loan each other when we run out, still, you never leave paper in the machine because it’s ‘your’ paper.”

    Paper. It’s become a symbol of the greater woes facing a school district in deep financial turmoil. It’s a basic need that, even as schools open, the district says it can’t promise.

    Also add these to this list of what’s missing: a full-time guidance counselor in every school, an assistant principal in every school. Extracurricular activities outside of fall sports.

    So what is the district promising? Classrooms across the city packed to the contracted maximum.

    Leubbert says, academically, Bache-Martin’s second graders would ideally be in classes of 22, but at this point the roll sheet is currently over the 30 maximum stipulated by the union contract.

    “What [the administration] downtown hopes is that everybody who says they’re going to show up isn’t going to show up,” she speculated. “This school has a history of everybody showing up and more.”

    In this situation, teachers like Luebbert know they’ll end up working longer hours and digging deeper into their own pockets in hopes of covering for these shortfalls. But in doing this, many fear that they are letting the state government off the hook for what they see as inadequate funding.

    Luebbert worried it might be a mistake “if we make it seem OK by doing everything by driving ourselves crazy and running ourselves ragged, and taking on extra work.”

    But the other option, shortchanging the kids, seems unappetizing to her, too: “You want it to run smoothly for the children. You don’t really want it to run smoothly for the district.”

    All these cuts represent the district’s attempt to right its financial ship by only paying for expenses for which it knows it’ll have the cash.

    In the spring, district officials said it would take an additional $304 million to provide services similar to last year. So far the district says it can only count on $83 million in new money cobbled together over the summer, with about three quarters of that coming from the city. The district found $16 million in its own savings and $2 million came from the state. Another $45 million could come from the state, but only if the state education secretary is satisfied the district is pursuing a robust enough “reform agenda,” including changes in teachers’ compensation and work rules.

    The district has asked its labor unions for $133 million in concessions, but to this point, even though the teachers’ contract expired at the end of August, both sides still seem far from agreement.

    Karen Thomas, principal at Cook Wissahickon in Roxborough, says her school’s operating expense budget (in other words, exclusive of salaries) is a quarter of what it was last year: “You’re just sort of buying the very, very bottom-level basic things to keep the building open, but that doesn’t provide for anything else.”

    On top of that, she’s lost a counselor, four academic support assistants, a full-time “dean of students,” and a financial officer. Thomas says these cuts are not only forcing her to reduce school programs, but are making some of her existing staff reconsider their career paths.

    “Everybody’s looking to get out,” she said. “The scariest thing is the young teachers who’ve been teaching two, three, four years, who say, ‘I’m just going to go get an MBA and get out of this business.’ And some of them are phenomenal teachers. I mean ‘naturals,’ like amazing, and they’re going to leave the profession because they’re sick of it. They’re tired of the politics.”

    Despite all the cuts and the yearly budget crises, many teachers – like South Philadelphia High’s Barbara Keating – remain committed and determined to shelter their students from the full wrath of the cuts.

    At her school, the challenge is especially big: Between incoming freshman and students coming over from the now shuttered Bok High School, Southern will have about 1,000 more students this year compared to last.

    “This is the task that we’ve been handed,” Keating said. “As professionals and people who care about teaching and care about the students, you know, just ‘get it done.’ It has to be done so you have to find a way to get it done.”

    Keating’s principal, Otis Hackney, takes the same view. For much of the summer, before secretaries were rehired, he was pretty much it in terms of school staff. When the doorbell rang, he hustled out to collect packages. Now, he says, it’s show time.

    “It’s like running a play. There may be chaos backstage, but the audience isn’t supposed to know it,” he said. “The curtain should open at the right time and the performers should go on stage. We have to do things so that when the students show up, especially many of them in a brand-new school, things feel right.” 

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