Philadelphia students refused to attend classes at some district high schools Wednesday morning to express solidarity with teachers who they think have been mistreated by the School Reform Commission.
On Monday, the SRC unilaterally terminated the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract. With the agreement out of the way, the school district says teachers will now begin paying for a share of their health care premiums, a move they say will give classrooms another $44 million worth of resources this year.
The SRC has asked state Commonwealth Court to make a declaratory judgment on the legality of its action. PFT leadership says lawyers are working on a response, but have yet to provide specifics.
Under the 2001 state takeover law, if teachers strike they can have their certifications revoked. On Wednesday, sympathetic students flexed their collective muscles in the union’s stead.
At Creative and Performing Arts high school (CAPA), about 200 students led a peaceful protest on South Broad Street that exuded the school’s artistic energy.
Junior Cy Wolfe, who strutted along the sidewalk, leading chants with a bullhorn, helped organized the protest through social media.
“There are a lot of people who would not want to work this job,” Wolfe said of district teachers. “So these people, they say, ‘OK, I’ll work this job that is much harder than another job.’ So with that you get the added bonus of health care being paid for.”
Wolfe and a few of his friends across the district had called for a citywide protest, but the bulk of activity occurred at CAPA and Science Leadership Academy, two of the district’s top magnet high schools.
At SLA, hundreds of students marched around the perimeter of the school’s Center City campus with homemade signs reading, “Students 4 Teachers,” “Honk 4 Education,” and “Why has it come to this?”
SLA junior Leo Levy was Wolfe’s counterpart in organizing the effort.
“I think that there’s a mindset still that no matter what we do that students are complacent in their relationship with schools – that they’re not working to help solve this problem,” he said. “I think that us being here proves that we are ready, willing, and able to be involved in this.”
Kevin Horton Jr., an 11th-grader at SLA, learned about the protest via Facebook.
“I kind of did hesitate [protesting] just a little bit,” he said, “but I decided to come out here just to show my solidarity and support.”
At CAPA, the event took on the tone of Mardi Grad with the art and music students literally trumpeting the chops they’ve been taught.
After improvising on alto sax, sophomore Doran Yarden said the SRC shouldn’t have acted unilaterally with little public notice or input.
“A lot of things that are actually happening aren’t that bad,” he said, referring to the concept of paying for health insurance premiums, “But the way they’re doing it is bad.”
Yarden thinks it will be difficult for teachers to trust the SRC again.
“They treat them like they’re expendable,” he said.
Many of the students surveyed had permission from their parents to skip classes for the peaceful protest. A district spokesman could not be reached to explain if students would be punished or counted as absent.
City and school police formed a line along South Broad to observe the proceedings, with some officers coaxing passing drivers to honk their horns in support of the students.
Student Tahira Hudson joined the protest, but only midway through the school’s half day.
“Cause I had to turn in homework,” she said. “I can’t fail, can’t fail these classes.”
Shannon Nolan of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook contributed to this report.