Doing more with less
As the school year starts, budget cuts, staffing challenges, and leadership turmoil will force Philly schools to make hard decisions.
By by Benjamin Herold
A new acting superintendent.
Hundreds fewer teachers and support staff.
And perhaps most challenging of all, roughly $320 million less in the District's coffers, which means cuts in everything from new textbooks to school nurses.
Such are the realities facing a District that enters the new school year needing to do more with less.
Listen to Benjamin Herold's report on the first day of school for WHYY.
"This is a really important time. We need everybody who has anything to do with educating children to feel as though they are part of the solution," said Leroy D. Nunery II, who was named acting superintendent August 22.
Nunery assumes control of a District in transition.
More than 60 principals are starting the year at new schools, numerous school closings are expected to be announced this fall, and a statewide probe into possible cheating on standardized tests could soon deepen.
In addition, the District has also been staggered by recent events, including the messy and protracted departure of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the continued statewide push to expand charter schools and voucher options, and unprecedented reductions in federal and state financial support.
The funding cuts will impact schools directly. At Benjamin Franklin High in North Philadelphia, for example, Principal Christopher Johnson says his budget has been slashed by 38 percent. In practical terms, that means 16 fewer teachers, average class sizes that have risen from 23 to 32 students, and the closing of the popular student success center that for years helped students prepare for college.
"Were we hit hard? Yes. Did they take everything? Not even close," said Johnson, who remains positive despite the challenges.
Indeed, the forecast for this school year is not all doom and gloom.
The District is coming off its ninth straight year of standardized test score gains, a streak it hopes to continue by carrying on with the key components of Imagine 2014, Ackerman's five-year strategic plan.
Despite apocalyptic predictions during the budget process, critical programs and services like full-day kindergarten, instrumental music, and free transportation for most students remain intact.
A new educational accountability agreement between the city, state and District offers hope of more transparency in the District's finances and decision-making.
And through the Renaissance Schools initiative, added resources and hopes for overhaul are coming to six of the District's historic – but troubled – neighborhood high schools. Audenried, Simon Gratz, and Olney are among the seven low-performing schools handed over to Renaissance charter operators. Germantown, Martin Luther King, and West Philadelphia high schools are the District's three new Promise Academies.
"We're trying to present the prudent course of action and extend what good work has already been done," said Nunery.
But for many schools, staying the course will not be an option this year.
For instance, at Potter-Thomas Elementary School in Kensington, Principal Dywonne Davis-Harris is starting over for the second year in a row.
Potter-Thomas is one of the District's original Promise Academies, or internal turnaround schools. Two weeks before school, Davis-Harris still had more than 20 vacant teacher positions to fill. What was supposed to be a year of continued growth for an established instructional team turned into a last-minute scurry to plug holes.
"Each year, the children are seeing different faces," said Davis-Harris, who described the staffing situation as "disheartening."
Potter-Thomas is not alone.
On the heels of the massive budget cuts and protracted legal battles between the District and the teachers' union over how to handle more than 1,200 teacher layoffs, the District is facing significant staffing challenges.
Hundreds of the laid-off teachers were reinstated, but things were in flux until the last minute. Many frustrated teachers say they spent the summer in limbo, waiting to learn if they would have jobs and where they might be assigned. Many took other positions elsewhere while waiting. For those who were placed, the turmoil and confusion means less time to prepare for the specific grade, subject, and students that they teach.
"Our goal is to have a qualified teacher in every classroom," said PFT President Jerry Jordan.
The District also enters the new school year with a significantly reduced – and reorganized – non-instructional staff. All told, the 2,418 people affected by the District's "reduction in force" included 739 non-instructional school-based personnel, such as per diem school safety officers, and 457 central office staffers.
Among the hard-hit departments at 440 North Broad is the District's finance office, which is set to lose more than half its staff.
And though the District still counts a total of nine academic subdivisions, some have been reshuffled. Middle schools are now folded into the divisions that include their neighborhood elementary schools.