Vivian Mitchell decided it was time to speak out.
Her son Quiadier Mitchell, diagnosed with ADHD, has been receiving special education services since 1st grade. But while he was an 8th grader this past school year at Roosevelt Elementary School in Germantown, she knew something wasn’t right.
Mitchell didn’t think he was getting the services he needed – and that are required, according to Quiadier’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
Her concerns about inadequate services have now been validated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which earlier this summer found that 36 students at Roosevelt – about one-third of its special education population – are entitled to extra tutoring this year “to remedy the educational loss” they suffered in 2015-16.
Mitchell’s dilemma is emblematic of a much larger problem, said City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a frequent District critic who was elected on the strength of her education activism.
“This situation of staffing and the struggle to staff schools adequately has had wide-ranging consequences,” said Gym, whose office helped Mitchell file her complaint with the state.
As the school year begins, the District is making an extended effort to recruit teachers and fill all its positions. Last year, it failed at this task. The final quarterly budget report for fiscal 2015-16 indicates that more than 1,200 allotted positions were vacant as of June, a number that includes 276 teachers and more than 200 other instructional positions.
None of those vacancies was listed as being in Roosevelt, where the problem appeared to be due to a series of extended teacher absences.
Mitchell painted a bleak picture of her son’s experience at Roosevelt – where the school and the neighborhood have recently faced turmoil and turnover – and of her own efforts to get help.
She said that she was concerned that her son was not getting the services he needed from the time he was in 6th grade, when he started at Roosevelt.
“In 6th grade, he was getting 3rd- and 2nd-grade work,” she said. “He was supposed to be pulled out” for the extra help, Mitchell said, but she never got a clear answer on whether that was happening.
When she went to get Quiadier’s report card just before Christmas break in his 8th-grade year and it was full of Ds and Fs, she wondered why she hadn’t been alerted that he was having problems. Then school officials told her they wanted to suspend him because he was walking out of the classroom.
It was then she discovered that he wasn’t being given extra "pullout" help in reading and math, as required for him by his IEP. Instead, a teacher was giving him what Mitchell said was “3rd-grade work” in class, in front of the other students.
“He was embarrassed,” she said, “so he would get up and walk out. He was getting teased, and it brought his self-esteem down.”
Mitchell said she repeatedly asked to see Quiadier’s special education teacher, but it was never arranged.
“They never gave an explanation. They kept telling me she wasn’t in,” she said.
It was only by a stroke of luck that Mitchell was able to get help. The minister in her place of worship, Greater Vision Church in Germantown, is Charlene Samuels, who became Gym’s director of constituent services when the new Council member took office in January.
Samuels went with Mitchell to meetings at the school. At one of them, Samuels said, the principal acknowledged that Quiadier has not been getting the required services and said that Roosevelt did not have enough special education teachers.
“That’s when I recommended that she file a complaint with the state,” said Samuels.
The state Department of Education has eight people in Philadelphia charged with monitoring whether mandated special education services to students are being delivered. In April, after the complaint was filed, the special education supervisor responsible for Quiadier was called into the office and was asked for documentation of the services that he had been provided.
“She had nothing,” Samuels said. “She didn’t produce one thing to show us and to show Mom what she had been working on with him.”
The state found that two of Roosevelt’s special education teachers were “unavailable” for three extended periods: the end of October through the first week of December, early January to early March, and mid-March to early May. In other words, someone was absent for most of the year.
The absences compromised services for all students. More than 16 percent of Roosevelt’s nearly 600 students are classified as needing special education, slightly higher than the citywide average.
“We don’t think people should be naïve about the consequences of failing to staff adequately,” Gym said. “It hurts children and families. It takes parent engagement and courage and hopefully taking this step, things will get better.”
The District issued a statement when asked for a response to this story: “There are over 19,000 children with special needs in the School District of Philadelphia and nothing is more important than making sure all students have the learning opportunities they deserve. When there are teacher absences or teacher vacancies, the school district works hard to fill them. In this instance we met with the families affected and devised a plan to support each student per their individualized education program. Additionally, we offered compensatory education to those impacted."
Most vacancies filled this year
Gym’s staff studied the District’s teacher vacancy lists for the last school year and determined that there were 49 special education vacancies districtwide as of February and that in April, 48 of those vacancies still existed. In a letter to the state, Gym also said that 16 of the same vacancies existed the previous October, likely meaning that “these 16 positions may have been vacant for most or all of the school year.” Most of these vacancies were at high schools, according to the staff analysis.
Although Roosevelt didn’t officially have special education vacancies, it also didn’t have the staffing necessary to provide adequate services to students, according to the state – due, apparently, to teacher absenteeism and the inability of the District to assign qualified substitutes.
This is an additional obstacle to providing the neediest students with consistent, high-quality instruction.
Last year the District outsourced its substitute service hoping to improve a record of covering about 60 percent of teacher absences on any given day, but that effort turned out to be a fiasco. More classrooms went uncovered than before, and the District terminated the contract with the vendor, Source4Teachers. It has now hired Kelly Services to provide substitutes instead.
For many reasons, Roosevelt is a prime example of the continual churn and instability that has marked the District for several years.
In 2011, when it was still a middle school, Roosevelt became embroiled in a cheating scandal and its longtime principal was transferred. In 2013, it avoided being closed in the District’s massive downsizing. But schools all around it were shuttered, including Fulton Elementary – which Quiadier attended before Roosevelt – and Germantown High, where its graduates were traditionally sent.
In all the upheaval, it was converted to a K-8 elementary school, but has had shifting leadership ever since. Last year it had two different principals – one a retiree filling in. In March, it became part of the District’s “turnaround” network for low-performing schools, which means that it is slated for extra help, focused attention, and staffing changes.
While Roosevelt is getting its turnaround, Quiadier is also hoping for a new beginning. He is about to start 9th grade at Roxborough High.
In a settlement with the state, the District agreed to provide him with 39 hours of tutoring in reading and math, his "compensatory education."
Mitchell and Samuels hope that will not be too little, too late.
“He’s really not where he should be, and he’s starting high school,” said Samuels. “He’s at a deficit.”
Mitchell is hoping that by highlighting what happened to her son, she can draw more attention to the issue of inadequate special education services.
“If I can be one parent to make it known, other parents may be helped as well,” she said. “I am hoping to encourage other parents to step up.”
Editor's Note: Helen Gym, who was elected to Council in November 2015, was a founder of the Notebook in 1994 and in the past, she served as a member of its board.,