August 30 — 5:55 pm, 2011

Schools still have nearly 200 vacancies

by Avi Wolfman-Arent

Two days before teachers are due to report for the first day of school, nearly 200 positions have yet to be filled and hundreds more teachers are just now learning where they will be working for the coming school year.

Filling vacancies has been particularly difficult for the Promise Academies, according to the District’s online vacancy list.

As of Tuesday morning there were 303 openings listed, but that number was reduced to 186 by the end of the day as teachers continued to choose among the open positions, according to Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The Promise Academies have the leeway to choose all their teachers through site selection – meaning the principals and school leadership can choose – but were unable to complete their staffs that way. The nine Promise Academies accounted for nearly 20 percent of the 303 vacancies as of Tuesday morning, and eight abortive Promise Academies accounted for dozens more.

These vacancies will now be filled like the remaining vacancies in other schools – with teachers choosing positions for which they qualify according to seniority.

PFT spokeswoman Barbara Goodman said that 526 of more than 1,200 teachers laid off had been called back, based on their qualifications for the remaining openings.

The Promise Academies were thrown into particular turmoil by the layoffs because most of their teachers were low on the seniority list. A legal battle between the PFT and the District over whether these teachers could be exempted from layoffs dragged out all summer, delaying the placement process for all the schools. 

At Potter-Thomas, a Promise Academy located at 6th and Indiana Streets in North Philadelphia, Principal Dywonne Davis-Harris expressed faith that her school’s five remaining teacher vacancies would be filled by this Thursday, September 1, when teachers are due to report.

“I’m optimistic,” Davis-Harris said. “I think we’ll get off to a good start.”

Davis-Harris said she knew of at least one called-back teacher who had already selected Potter-Thomas – bringing the total number of vacancies down to four – and anticipated more matches in the coming days. This is the third year in a row that she has had to build a new team of teachers at Potter-Thomas, which was in the first cohort of Promise Academies last year.

Having such uncertainty right up to the start of the school year is not good for schools and teachers, many of whom take weeks to prepare their classrooms and prepare in other ways for the year.

Jordan said that most teachers manage to adapt.

"Where there can be a challenge for a teacher is in the elementary grades,” he said. “If you taught 1st grade this year and that’s your experience and you’re at a school and you’re going to 6th grade, that’s going to be a challenge. …It’s not one that they can’t rise to because they’re trained and certified.”

Of the schools with 10 or more vacancies, all are either Promise Academies or were scheduled to become Promise Academies before the initiative was scaled back due to the District’s budget crisis.

As of Tuesday morning, Roberto Clemente Middle School had 16 vacancies, followed by Germantown High School with 14, Alcorn School with 13, and Barry School with 12.

Clemente is one of the six original Promise Academies. Germantown is a new one this year and Alcorn and Barry are among the eight schools originally slated for the makeover but then dropped due to the cuts.

West Philadelphia and Martin Luther King high schools, both new Promise Academies, had eight openings each.

This isn’t the first time that the District has been so close to opening with large numbers of vacancies. Other years, especially those in which contract negotiations go down to the wire, have seen school start with as many as 300 vacancies. In recent years, as teacher shortages have waned, the numbers have been much better. In 2009, schools opened with fewer than two dozen vacancies.

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