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On budget reductions and school conditions: What teachers are seeing





by Erin Rooney

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Residents of Philadelphia are counting down the days until the city’s public schools open. We are faced with insufficient funds and abundant worry about the School District’s ability to open safe and functioning schools. Amid a massive budget crisis, the District has slashed numerous positions, programs, and resources. These reductions raise serious concerns.

Of course, this budget crisis and its consequences have been in progress for a few years. Schools have been working with reductions in staffing, programming, and funding since the start of the 2011-12 school year, the same year I began data collection in two neighborhood schools as part of a dissertation study on teachers’ working conditions. Though I did not intend to research the impacts of budget reductions at the local school level, this reality inevitably surfaced in conversations with teachers about their work. 

Below I share a few of the many lessons that I gleaned from speaking with teachers. They are important to consider as we enter the school year with our city’s schools drastically underfunded.

School facilities: “It’s very unclean and dilapidated, and I feel like it should not be a school.” 

It’s no secret that some of Philadelphia’s public school buildings are dated and in disrepair. Even the nicest school buildings suffer when there are reduced maintenance services. Teachers bemoaned the deteriorating conditions of their school buildings as maintenance crews were cut and the cleanliness of the school buildings declined over the course of the school year. 

The overall impact that a school building has on teachers and students cannot be overstated. In my study, the reduced maintenance services shaped teachers’ daily experiences. One teacher said, “When I walk in the back doors, it smells, it’s dirty, it’s disgusting.” Certainly, other issues will take precedence as the city works to open schools on time. But we have to think through school facilities as well. We have to consider the messages that the conditions of our school buildings send to the children and the adults who inhabit them each day.

Short on staff, short on support: “I think it’s the worst year for the school. ... The loss of staff has really affected us.” 

The above quote was uttered by a teacher at an Empowerment school. For many in the School District, the term “Empowerment” was synonymous with scripted instruction and increased monitoring. What people tend to forget is that, at one point in time, this model brought additional financial and human capital to struggling schools. Those services were severely reduced in the 2011-12 school year, weakening this particular school’s ability to support struggling students, and to build stronger home-school connections. Furthermore, instructional programming suffered when there were not enough adults to implement instructional interventions in the manner prescribed.

Staffing reductions compromise how schools organize rosters and what services can be offered on a consistent basis. This year, as schools negotiate changes within the Common Core state standards, it is imperative that a variety of supports are available to help students. Undoubtedly, schools will struggle to provide a consistent, coherent, and supportive educational program with fewer supports in place.

Reduced opportunity for teacher collaboration: “Unless you make time during lunch, or before school, or after school, that’s really the only time that we have to come together.” 

High-achieving schools encourage teachers to learn from their colleagues and often organize time during the week for teachers to plan and problem-solve together. In Philadelphia, it is challenging to find time for teachers to work and learn together during the school day. 

At the time of my data collection, grade-level meetings among teachers were nearly nonexistent as there simply were not enough people in the building to provide teachers with a weekly meeting time. This year, we have a massive budget crisis coupled with significant movement of staff members across the District. Under these conditions, it is unrealistic to expect that schools and teachers will be able to build the kind of professional community common to schools that achieve high levels of student learning.

The early lessons presented above are just that -- early lessons. Undoubtedly, they will pale in comparison to the conditions under which schools will operate this year. Though the District estimated, before closing 24 schools, that almost a quarter of its seats were empty, the fact is that plenty of Philadelphia’s children will be sitting in School District seats this year. As the nation prepares to raise standards and create shared goals through the Common Core state standards, here in Philadelphia, we laid off more than 3,800 teachers and staffers, decimating the very conditions necessary for increased achievement.  

Erin Rooney is an advanced doctoral student in Urban Education at Temple University and a former School District teacher.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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