The School District plans to overhaul a portion of Eat. Right. Now., its longstanding federally-funded nutrition education program, outsourcing the jobs of 10 teacher-educators and refocusing the K-12 program on the K-5 grades, although some K-12 programming will still be offered.
This portion of the program, paid for with a federal grant administered by Penn state, operates in 43 Philadelphia schools, while another 175 schools have programming provided by five other partner organizations that will not be affected.
Under the changes, Penn state's portion of the program would pull out of lower-poverty schools and expand programming in higher- poverty schools.
While the District says the goal is to make the program more effective and focus on the neediest students, the upheaval has triggered an online petition claiming that the change is unnecessary and another example in a pattern of eliminating union jobs in the name of efficiency.
“This plan takes away all the experience, expertise, and the long, successful relationships built over many years with students, school staff members, and the communities they serve,” David Hensel, the dean of students at Taggart Elementary School, wrote in the petition. “We are asking Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Tracks, the providers of the same generous grant that has funded the program each year, to ask the School District of Philadelphia to keep our experienced, excellent nutrition educators.”
Started five days ago, the petition has over 700 signatures.
The 10 educators will be replaced by 14 non-union contractors. Many nutrition educators have worked in their schools for as many as 10 years. The District will also be adding four researchers to the two currently used to evaluate the program.
“We have developed a grant application which addresses how we can better use state funds to improve the Eat Right Now program,” District spokesman Kevin Geary said in a statement. “That grant application will allow us to better serve our highest-poverty, and highest-need schools.”
The new proposal also changes which age students receive the most nutrition education.
“Our hope is to focus more on K-5 schools where evaluations have shown to be the most effective,” Geary said. “This will all be done with the same cost as the old program, he said.
It will also offer nutrition education after school and during the summer.
'The kids love it'
Hensel, who is the PFT’s building representative at Taggart and a founding member of the Working Educators caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the nutrition education coordinator at his school has been there for a decade.
“The kids love it,” Hensel said. “She’s hands on. Students get healthy snacks and recipes to take home to their parents. She does cooking classes with parents, too,” adding that she’s even begun teaching cooking classes to younger middle school students.
But the high school and middle school programming will be reduced under the new program, and it’s not yet clear whether these courses would still be offered.
“If they cut this one teacher from our school they’ll have 50 heartbroken staff members and 500 kids who are going to get a lower quality education,” Hensel said. “They’ll also lose an important relationship that’s been a part of their whole school age lives. And that’s something we can’t replace.”
“If the educators are not there, then their experience and expertise and the relationships they’ve built will disappear,” Hensel said. He worries that “the program will fail” without those relationships.
Currently the four coordinators work out of the Catherine Annex, a District building in Southwest Philadelphia, along with the nutrition educators. A leaked summary of the grant proposal obtained by the Notebook states that one coordinator position will be eliminated and the rest moved to District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St., although the new nutrition educators will still work out of the annex.
The staff found out about potential changes in September when they were called into a meeting with Cheryl Logan, the District’s Chief of Academic Support, and Joe D’Alessandro, Deputy Chief of the Office of Grant Compliance and Fiscal Services.
They met to discuss the findings of a report authored by the grant compliance office. They were told that the report found the program to be financially inefficient, although they were not shown the report or its findings, according to sources. Much of the District’s criticism was that the program is too top heavy, meaning it spent too much money on supervisors and administrators.
The metric used in the report was cost-per-nutrition-event, or the amount spent on average per nutrition course. The new program will reduce that cost.
On Feb. 28 the District called another meeting where Logan and D’Alessandro informed the nutrition educators that they would be laid off on June 30, assuming the proposal was approved.
Sources confirmed that under the proposal, the new hires replacing the current educators will receive lower pay, work longer hours, and the District will not offer benefits. The District sent the report to Pennsylvania State University late last month, which is responsible for overseeing the grant funds.
District spokesman Lee Whack said the District expects to hear back from Penn State in two or three weeks.
Hensel said the lower wages and lack of benefits were characteristic of the District’s moves to outsource positions in the past, and only made it harder to recruit new teachers at a time when the District has teaching vacancies to fill but hasn’t had a teachers’ contract for four years. During the stalemate between the District and union, teachers have not had raises.
“We have to take a stand against the outsourcing of union jobs and teachers with experience leaving our schools,” Hensel said. “We’ve hit this wall where we’re not getting raises and people are leaving. That’s hurting our students.”
D’Alessandro and his office wrote both the evaluation of the old program and the proposal for the new program. Despite criticism that the old program was too top-heavy, the proposal increases the number of researchers working out of District headquarters by 200 percent, while increasing the number of educators by 40 percent.
“I think [the District is] always looking to cut corners in ways that have negative consequences for our students but then I see an obscene amount of money being allocated and approved at the SRC every time -- multi-million dollar contracts -- and I just don’t understand it,” Hensel said. “They may save a little bit of money on this, but it’s going to hurt thousands of kids in 48 schools.”
To be clear, the District will not be saving money as the District does not pay for the program.
The PFT has been involved in ongoing negotiations with the District over the 10 nutrition educators, who are members of the union.
Union President Jerry Jordan said that he has been assured by the District that the few nutrition educators who have teaching certificates will be given vacant teaching jobs elsewhere in the District.
He added that the competitive bidding process used to find a replacement organization to run the program may not result in any bidders at all. He was told “if the District doesn’t get the outside partner that they need to deal with these neediest schools, they’re going to look at that and may retain many of the people they have already notified” about layoffs, Jordan said.
But a source confirmed that some nutrition educators are already looking for other jobs.
Hensel called Jordan’s attempts to get laid off staff into vacant teaching positions a “good backup plan,” but he and his co-signers would like to see the program retain its current staff, and all the relationships they’ve built at their schools. He found it hard to believe that the District would be able to replace them with educators of an equivalent quality if they were offering less money, longer hours, and potentially no benefits.
“Children’s health is a critical part of what we’re dealing with in Philadelphia,” Hensel said. “This is a vital program, so let's not ruin it.”