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Choosing a high school: New twists in the process

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 30, 2013 02:25 PM

Under the best of conditions, applying to high school in Philadelphia can be a trying exercise.

In this extraordinary year, the process will have new wrinkles, in large part because of unprecedented budget cuts and staffing shortages. There are some changed procedures and requirements, and several gaps caused by the funding crisis:

No shortage of counselors at Promise Academies

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 26, 2013 04:11 PM

Due to the District's fiscal crisis, most schools in Philadelphia are suffering a counselor drought. But Promise Academies are not among them.

In fact, the 12 Promise Academies -- the District's in-house turnaround schools -- have 19 counselors, which amounts to 15 percent of the 126 counselors available to all 220 or so District-run schools.

More than half the District's schools -- 115 of them, with a population of more than 48,000 students -- are sharing 16 "itinerant" counselors who travel from school to school and have caseloads averaging about 3,000 students each.

In the Promise Academies, which have a combined enrollment of about 8,000, the average caseload works out to one counselor per about 420 students, much closer to the recommendations of the American School Counselor Association.

Former District financial official Irv Davis dies

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 24, 2013 03:00 PM

Many Notebook readers undoubtedly remember Irv Davis, who was the managing director of the School District for many years, and, before that, a managing director for the city. He kept tight rein on the District's finances during most of the 11 years that Constance Clayton was superintendent -- a period that also saw some periods when money was scarce, but nothing close to what is happening now.

Davis' policy, as recounted in this story from 1992, was not to sign off on any new labor contract or long-term expenditure if he didn't think the money was there to fund it, and he took great pride in his ability to keep the District solvent. This was also an era when Philadelphia had more clout in Harrisburg, and city legislators and District lobbyists succeeded in keeping the District's state aid high, even when its student population was declining during the height of white and middle-class flight. When Davis was in charge, the District often ran surpluses.

What's happening with class size?

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 20, 2013 04:49 PM

Two weeks into a school year unlike any other, with severe cutbacks in teachers and other personnel in schools, the District is about to start its process of "leveling," or reassigning teachers based on where the students are.

According to District officials, fears of huge class sizes have not materialized.

State unveils new rating system for schools

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 18, 2013 04:36 PM

Pennsylvania is moving to a new school performance rating system that replaces the much-criticized AYP, or Adequate Yearly Progress, with a more complex evaluation that includes student proficiency in science and writing as well as reading and math.

Barring unforeseen problems, test scores and other academic indicators for each school in the state --  charters and cyber charters included -- will be released Sept. 30 on a new and highly interactive website.

Mayor seeking donations for school supplies

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 11, 2013 06:38 PM

Mayor Nutter wants people in the city and region to donate money so that schools in Philadelphia have adequate supplies.

At a press conference Wednesday, Nutter announced the formation of the Philadelphia Education Supplies Fund, with a goal of raising $500,000 by Oct. 15 and $2.5 million over the next five years.

He started out by donating $200,000 from the city's general fund and said the city would pledge up to $1 million in five years.

After budget cuts and closures, tremendous uncertainty surrounds the return to school

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 9, 2013 08:51 AM

As the Philadelphia School District prepared to open for the 2013-14 school year, teachers scoured for usable desks that they could stuff into classrooms with, in some cases, 40 or more students.

Some even contemplated bringing in spare chairs from home.

“We have a lot more students and fewer staff members,” said Barbara Keating, head of the English department at South Philadelphia High School. “Classes are going to be much larger than what we’re used to here, so there is a lot of scrambling to find enough desks, and desks that are usable.”

Southern is expected to more than double in size due to an influx of students from Bok Technical High School, which was among 24 schools that were closed down last spring.

Southern is not alone. Roxborough High School is getting students from Germantown, also closed. Enrollment is expected to jump from about 500 to 680 students.

Heidi Rochlin, a Roxborough teacher, is expecting 41 students in her Algebra 1 class.

But that’s not the half of it.

Countdown, Day 4: Talks to resume Friday; teachers are under a 'status quo' contract

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 5, 2013 04:11 PM

Teachers' contract negotiations took a break on Thursday for Rosh Hashanah, with plans to resume Friday and likely continue through the weekend.

"The expectation is that they are going to go on into the weekend," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Meanwhile, teachers are working under what is known as a "status quo" contract. How is that different from a contract extension?

Philadelphia and other districts try to reinvent summer learning

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 4, 2013 12:51 PM

This story, part of a multi-city reporting partnership focusing on expanded learning time, takes a look at new summer learning initiatives that have emerged in five major cities. 


Many states and school districts around the nation that serve large numbers of low-income children are on a mission to reinvent summer experiences for them.

These districts are committed to abandoning the old idea of summer school as mandatory and punitive for students who fall behind, something that research has shown to be ineffective. Instead, they want to integrate summer school into the larger learning experience and make students want to come.

“‘A little more school’ isn’t the answer for attracting kids or engaging them in a different way,” says Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “Where we’re seeing growth is in programs that have academic rigor and are aligned with what schools are trying to do.”

Rather than aiming directly at test scores or courses, the new goal is to curtail summer learning loss, which researchers say accounts for a huge part of the academic achievement gap that opens up between low-income children and their wealthier peers as they progress through school.

As deadline passes, Jordan says progress made, but still no settlement

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 31, 2013 11:34 PM

Negotiators for the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers reached the midnight deadline without reaching agreement on a new contract.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said in an interview that the two sides "made some progress," although there were still many unresolved issues.

Asked whether the two sides were still far apart, he said, "There are a number of outstanding issues. We were not close enough to close the deal."

Countdown, Day 11: What is the story with counselors?

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 29, 2013 04:14 PM

The District has said that, so far, it has recalled 126 of the 270 counselors that it had laid off, all but 10 of them by using some of the $50 million in additional funds that the city has promised to deliver as a contribution to helping close the District's budget gap.

Although officials have not confirmed this, it appears that schools with fewer than 600 students were not allotted a full-time counselor. By looking at school enrollment projections from June, the Notebook calculated that only 85 of the District's 212 schools have 600 or more students. Ten additional counselors were also assigned to Promise Academies, seven of which have enrollments below 600.

Barring more recent purchases of counselors by principals or special allotments, that still leaves more than half of the District's schools, including half of the District's 48 high schools, without a counselor -- a situation that is unheard of in fully functional school systems.

Countdown, Day 12: Jordan offers one-year pay freeze, benefit changes

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 28, 2013 12:37 PM

[Updated, 3:30 p.m. with additional quotes from Charles Zogby]

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan held a press conference Wednesday morning to announce that the union is willing to forgo a salary increase -- at least for one year -- and "make changes to our health care and benefits" in order to find savings that will allow positions to be restored to the schools.

"We know the current staffing levels cannot assure parents, students and employees that schools will be safe and more than just functional," Jordan said. He said he was particularly upset about split grades, the lack of counselors and libraries in every school, and enough support personnel and secretaries.

He didn't attach any dollar amounts to the benefits changes, and the School District immediately issued a statement saying that the offer "falls well short" of the $103 million in savings that it wants from the PFT. 

Countdown, Day 14: Most noontime aides rehired; asst. principals to be recalled soon

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 26, 2013 04:43 PM

The School District has recalled 1,109 noontime aides -- rebranded "school safety officers" by their union -- which is just about all of those who had been laid off and had not chosen to leave or retire.

Altogether, according to a document made public Monday, District officials used the $50 million in additional funds promised by the city to restore 907 positions, including some counselors, teachers, and others. That came on top of 742 positions that had been restored with $33 million that Superintendent William Hite eked out of his existing budget, for a total of 1,649.

Among those being recalled are 45 assistant principals, although none of them have yet been notified, according to Robert McGrogan, head of their bargaining unit.

Philly Say Yes students head to college, as Obama commends Syracuse program

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 26, 2013 11:58 AM

Kadidja Dosso spent last Thursday packing to go off to college, preparing for the ride ("depending on what kind of driver you are, it could be four hours or seven hours") to Hampton University in Virginia, where she plans to do a five-year program and get her MBA.

Anthony Walter is staying closer to home, at Chestnut Hill College, so he can be near his parents, both of whom are disabled. He plans to major in criminal justice.

Neither could have afforded college without help from the Say Yes to Education program, founded by philanthropist George Weiss in 1987. Kadidja and Anthony are members of the last Philadelphia class to benefit from Say Yes; they were made the promise when they were about to enter kindergarten at the Bryant Elementary School 13 years ago.

Countdown, Day 17: NCLB waiver frees up federal money, but it's no help in Philly

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 23, 2013 01:41 PM

When Pennsylvania received its waiver from No Child Left Behind, school districts around the state gained flexibility in using once-restricted federal dollars. But Philadelphia was not so lucky.

By law, districts were required to use 20 percent of their Title I money for Supplemental Education Services (SES) – generally, afterschool tutoring from private providers – and to transport students to better-performing schools. Philadelphia is scheduled to receive about $140 million in Title I funds in 2013-14, which is what led PFT president Jerry Jordan to send out a press release earlier this week, saying that $33 million could now be redirected to other purposes in the District, like bringing back laid-off classroom staff or restoring intervention and enrichment programs.

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