When Peggy Marie Savage thinks back over her 20-plus years teaching in the School District of Philadelphia, she whispers one word: “Wow.”
Savage had been teaching for eight years at Richmond Elementary by 1994, but “it felt like I was still brand new,” she said. Her classes were large, as many as 33 children. She had students at both ends of the spectrum – “kids who were really, really gifted and kids you really had to pray for,” whose learning disabilities cried out for evaluation and extra help.
Over the years, class sizes went down, efforts to differentiate instruction expanded, technological tools arrived, and Savage gained savvy as a teacher, an advocate for children, and a trainer of fellow teachers.
Two decades later, the District’s budget crisis has translated into setbacks at Richmond: instructional materials are slow to arrive, the nurse’s office is empty two days a week, non-teaching assistants have been furloughed, and class sizes are creeping back up.
But Savage is undeterred.
“I don’t rely on the system to get me what I need to teach my students,” she said.
She draws on her own inner resources. “I need to be more creative, more forthright,” she said.
“If my students need X, Y and Z, I find ways to get what I need.”
Over the past two decades, the School District of Philadelphia has experienced 10 different District leaders, a state takeover, the birth and controversial expansion of charter schools, and fallout from the No Child Left Behind law, including a state exam cheating scandal. These events have impacted everyone from students to parents to teachers and other educators.
The Notebook interviewed six veteran District teachers to get their perspectives about how the District has changed inside and outside of the classroom over the past 20 years.
Savage and other teachers marveled at the myriad ways their schools have transformed yet stayed the same. All have experienced curriculum overhauls, District and school leaders who arrived with big plans that too often fell short, and ongoing budget crises.
Nearly all of them recalled principals coming and going, most of them ineffectual, the better ones making strides in terms of school climate, cohesive curriculum, and rational decision-making.
A majority of these teachers agree on two points: that decision-making at the District and principal level has moved more toward being “data–driven” with less teacher input and that school-level leadership then and now makes all the difference.
Kate Naughton, now a 1st-grade teacher at Penn Alexander School, recalled having four principals her first three years at Meade Elementary. She arrived in 1995 to a classroom devoid of books or extras but got started with 800 books of her own.
Naughton said that the best principals – the ones who are strong instructional leaders – look out for teachers and keep “the wolves at bay.” The others, she said, “had their own agendas, never lasted long, and were looking out for themselves rather than for the children.”
She remembered the District being carved into regions, then into clusters, then into subdistricts.
“We went from everybody doing their own thing in their own schools to some districtwide efforts,” Naughton recalled. But more often than not those initiatives fizzled, she added. “It was unified for about a minute.”
Donna Sharer has taught at five District schools and is now on the leadership team at Furness High School, where she also teaches social studies and ESOL. She started at E.S. Miller Remedial in 1992, near the end of the Connie Clayton administration.
Sharer said she worries for the District’s future.
“I live this 24-7,” said Sharer, whose own three children attend city public schools. “The ups and downs of the District matter to me, and not just professionally.”
Sharer recalled with admiration how, in the 1990s, high school reform led to the development of small learning communities. “It was very teacher-driven,” she said.
“A lot of emphasis, time, and money went into that. Those were the Hornbeck days. Now, it’s data-driven … and the issue of resources, that’s always been a problem. But now it seems worse because it’s not just resources disappearing, it’s people too. That’s what we’re losing.”
Now, Sharer said, the District looks at the negatives in a school and considers whether it should be shuttered.
“That’s the big shift from when I started – how schools, teachers and students are viewed. As a parent, I don’t want my kids being seen as deficits. That’s a warped way to view human beings,” Sharer said.
For Tony Rocco, there’s been a herky-jerky aspect to District undertakings. It’s like “the flavor of the week,” he said. “It’s tough to get things done.”
The District’s Renaissance Schools initiative, an effort to turn around low-performing schools, holds appeal to Rocco, who teaches computer science at one such school, ASPIRA Stetson Charter. Rocco started in 1996 at Muñoz-Marín Elementary (which this spring was tapped by the District as a turnaround school to possibly be handed over to ASPIRA). He transferred to Stetson in 2009 and stayed when it became a Renaissance school, he said, because he “believed in” the leadership team. He sees the Renaissance initiative as among the major developments of recent years.
“As much as I love the union, the fact that the charter could start things from zero made the difference. If we were unionized, for good or bad, that could not have happened,” said Rocco.
Stetson staff focused on the most recalcitrant students, imposing a strict behavior code.
“The staff is unified, able to hold the line,” he said. Too often, despite the best of intentions, “kids push, and teachers and administrators retreat. That battle is never won,” Rocco said.
Though Rocco is an advocate of technology, that is not the answer to improving schools, he said. Leadership with the will to change the climate is key.
“What does it take to keep a group of 25 crazy kids, the troublemakers, from doing whatever they want? You do whatever is necessary,” he said. “It can happen without a charter [management], but it’s more difficult.”
Mattie Davis, who now teaches 1st grade at William Dick Elementary, formerly worked at Frederick Douglass Elementary, before it was handed to Young Scholars for turnaround as a charter. Davis said she takes an optimist’s view of all the changes in the District.
“We have to refuel and retool as teachers,” said Davis, a 23-year veteran.
“We all must be accountable, but we must be sure our students become critical readers, writers and thinkers -- not just students who respond to the prompts on standardized tests but do not think deeply.”
In that regard, her view is “things are getting better. Strings are being loosened.”
That view is shared by Lisa Hantman, a 3rd grade teacher at McCall Elementary who has 25 years in the District.
“Standardized testing became so valued that it took over so much [classroom] time. The Common Core allows for more expansive learning and gives the teacher more leeway.”
Hantman’s teacher philosophy has remained the same but her teacher style has improved.
“I’m better at what I do,” said Hantman, who is a huge advocate of service learning in the classroom. This year her students are studying water conservation in the city. Every year, “it’s an enlivening experience,” she said.
An uncertain future
While recognizing some improvement, the teachers seemed almost loath to predict the District’s future.
“I’m nervous,” said Naughton. “Everything is so unknown. It’s hard to say it’s going to be great when you see what’s happening.”
Savage said she just keeps juggling resources and spending out of pocket – about $275 a month now to make sure there are scissors and paper and noise-isolating earphones for the special lessons her dyslexic students need.
Sharer said she takes the same advice she gives student teachers.
“You have to find satisfaction and motivation in the small victories day to day.”
And she sees hope in efforts not only in Philadelphia but across the United States in support of public education.
“We want an equitable, available public school system in this country,” she said. “That’s possible to have, and we have to fight and organize for that.”