One of the more stressful jobs I've had over my two decades of teaching middle school was running a lunch room with upwards of 300 rambunctious adolescents. They were determined to make the most of the one time during the school day that they were out of the classroom.
It was a challenge to keep peace and good order. I had to make sure students got their food, could visit the bathroom, and didn’t escape into the halls or the uninhabited regions of our old building. I depended on a group of noontime aides (who now call themselves student safety staff) to help police the perimeters, identify problems, and mediate conflicts.
Largely invisible to the public, these workers help create a climate in which students feel supported but also accountable. That may change next fall as the District faces a perfect storm of circumstances that threaten to further destabilize the already fragile school-support systems that keep children safe.
The 1,231 student safety staff members are an endangered species who face the prospect of elimination under the budget just enacted last week by the School Reform Commission. The loss of this staff, along with counselors and others who contribute to making schools safe, has to be a major concern. It comes at a time when many schools are facing the added challenge of a new wave of enrollment from closing schools.
My old school, Julia de Burgos, a K-8 school in Kensington, is a case in point. On top of its present enrollment of 650 students, de Burgos will add about 250 more from nearby Fairhill Elementary, which closes this month.
“There’s no way the teachers are going to be able to handle everything, and the principal will have to be counselor, secretary, security," Tassie Rivera, a parent leader at the school, told the Inquirer. "What will happen when a kid is being beat up in the cafeteria? It will be an unsecure school. It's unacceptable."
Keeping schools safe
Justin Haley has been a student safety staff member for five years, the last four of them at Motivation High School. Last Thursday afternoon, Haley was one of a contingent of workers -- members of UNITE HERE, the union that represents them -- rallying before the SRC meeting along with parents, teachers, and students.
“We’re concerned about what this budget will do to students and their families,” Haley said. “No counselors, no arts and music, bigger classes. … It’s not just about us, it’s about what this means for education.”
Haley described how he and his coworkers help keep schools safe. “We greet students, help them to feel welcome. We talk to them, mediate conflicts, and help teachers with difficult students, de-escalating situations that could lead to violence or serious disruption.”
Haley and other safety staffers have been receiving training in conflict mediation from the District. He has also sought out training on his own.
The value added for a school by workers like Haley is recognized by many teachers and administrators. “Some of the most difficult hours of the school day occurred during the students' lunch periods," noted retired principal Frank Murphy, formerly at Meade Elementary in North Philadelphia. "The lunch room and school yard are settings where inappropriate behavior can easily go unobserved and quickly accelerate into serious situations. Fights that originate during these times almost always carry over into classrooms. I depended on my noontime aides to monitor and supervise student behavior during lunch periods. Having several skilled noontime aides on staff, in my view, is essential to maintaining a safe and orderly school environment."
Although the main issue raised by the threatened elimination of these positions is the safety of students and the impact on school climate, this action by the District, like earlier attacks on its maintenance workers, also means increasing poverty and economic distress in our city. It means solving the budget crisis on the backs of these workers who are already struggling to get by on less than $11 per hour.
Rally on Wednesday
On Wednesday, June 5, local members of UNITE HERE will be rallying at the District's headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. to press their demand for safe schools with healthy food. The rally is supported by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, the labor-community coalition that includes the three major school-worker unions.
UNITE HERE’s work to strengthen PCAPS is notable in several ways. The union, which represents mainly hotel and casino workers in the region, has sought to educate and mobilize its whole membership about the attacks on public education. They recognize that this should be a concern of all of labor, not solely those employed by schools.
As in the case of the student safety staff, UNITE HERE has consistently sought to link the concerns of its members with the broader issues facing the community. The union is working with Youth United for Change, for instance, to develop a campaign to bring healthier food into schools. In spite of being a relatively small union with limited resources, it has demonstrated that aggressive organizing and a message of solidarity can be effective.
Let’s join them this Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a member of the steering committee of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.