My education is, in part, a product of the best intentions of the School District of Philadelphia. In the early '90s, the elementary school I attended in my neighborhood, James Russell Lowell in Olney, could no longer accommodate students up to 8th grade, so at the age of 11, I began evaluations to attend a school outside of my neighborhood, something most Philadelphia public school students know about.
Of the hundreds of children having to transfer from Lowell that year, I think there were three or four of us chosen — all white — to attend Masterman magnet school in the Spring Garden neighborhood. Some of them I had never seen in Olney before. Some were from families who had come to live there to practice their religious convictions, my first experience with a kind of urban missionary. Others came from families who could afford to send their children to private schools.
By the middle of October in any given school year, students are situated into their routines, snug in their desks. They have finally committed their class schedules to memory. They know what their teachers expect of them. They have begun to know their classmates. Their notebooks are filled with notes.
This year, two weeks beyond the contracted deadline, the School District has used its leveling sledgehammer to collapse classes and smash to smithereens much of what students and teachers have worked so hard to accomplish. The schools become unhinged just as they were settling in. The cost is incalculable.
When leveling occurs, the District must reshuffle schools' staff to match their actual enrollments, and class rosters have to be remade. Children are often assigned to different teachers with different teaching styles or ones who are in a different place in the curriculum. Some subjects are eliminated, and the work done since September is lost.
Following is an abridged version of a statement issued by the board of trustees and administrative leadership of the FACTS charter school.
Why we speak
As members of the Board of Trustees and the administrative leadership of the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), we wish to add our voice and our perspectives to this important discussion [about public education and the District's current funding crisis], speaking out of FACTS’ experience as a public charter school now in its 10th year of existence.
FACTS began in specific response to educational needs of Asian immigrant children who were not being adequately served in Philadelphia by the public schools. It was founded by community residents deeply committed to public education who had struggled for many years previously on a number of fronts to remedy the overall lack of public resources in Chinatown, and in Asian communities more broadly.
Like a broken record, for over two years the School Reform Commission has sounded the call for "shared sacrifice." The phrase provided the frame for its decision to break the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' contract and impose what amounts to a huge wage cut. Their message has been: Everyone else has stepped up, and now teachers must do so.
But not everyone else has stepped up. Banks, corporations, and the mega-nonprofits in this city have not made sacrifices, nor has this body asked them to.
Let me be specific.
[Notebook editor's note: This commentary appeared on NewsWorks Thursday morning. Shortly after, Sylvia Simms said on Twitter that she would like to meet with the student protesters.]
Yesterday evening, students from the Philadelphia Student Union disrupted a screening at the School District headquarters of Won’t Back Down, a film largely critical of teachers' unions and supportive of charter school development.
The students sat silently in the first few rows of the auditorium, only to break out of their seats about 20 minutes into the film to sit in front of the screen and clap and chant in support of a fair funding formula and against the recent decision by the School Reform Commission to cancel the teachers’ union contract.
The sad state of Philadelphia's public schools inspires fury, frustration, and now, from the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, a really bad idea for fundamental change.
Wolf recently proposed replacing the current five-member School Reform Commission that runs the schools with a locally elected school board.
I know Wolf means well. But establishing an elected school board in Philadelphia will not empower parents and their communities. It will put the selection of our school board members in the hands of the same people who pick judges, state legislators, sheriffs and city commissioners in this town: Democratic ward leaders.
Philadelphia public schools are in a financial crisis. They have been in crisis for the last three years.
Why has this happened? Where do we stand? What needs to happen next? These are the questions we face.
In addressing these questions, we should acknowledge that it is difficult to solve a problem if one is not clear about what the problem is. Even after years of upheaval and drama, there is some dispute as to the causes of our school budget crisis.
Some in our community maintain that the School District is in a budget crisis because it has a “structural deficit.” Others suggest that the crisis results from internal fiscal mismanagement. Still others claim that the crisis was caused by the withdrawal of federal stimulus funding.
The recent controversial move by the School Reform Commission to cancel the teachers’ union contract is indicative of the morass that is our public education system. Amid the backdrop of a District in permanent financial and political crisis, we are engulfed in a failing national debate about education reform. Addressing educational inequalities and the lack of social opportunity for kids has been lost between the two sides of the debate.
One side believes that dissolving the public system and replacing it with a diverse “marketplace of schools” will solve our problems. Yet that “marketplace” has not systematically produced better results.
Dear SRC: I'm recovering from surgery. And teaching full time. Thanks for decreasing my health benefits in secret. #phled— Larissa Pahomov (@Lpahomov) October 6, 2014
Almost exactly a month ago, I wrote about recovering from surgery and going back to work.
Then, on Monday, my school district had a stealth meeting to cancel my union’s contract and impose health - care benefits changes onto staff.
In response, I sent out a tweet that was personal, but important to me.
On Monday, Philadelphia public-school teachers reported to work, as they always do, in a workplace fraught with the most dangerous of all pitfalls: hope.
In the wake of budget cuts, they report to work daily with the hope that the children will be settled; that hallways will be clean; that classrooms will be equipped with luxuries like paper and chalk.
But there is one more hope they carry with them constantly — the hope that they will have a normal day.