November 25 — 3:30 pm, 2013

Many have stories to share of painful budget cuts

Crowded classrooms, losses of key staff, and roster disruption have students mobilizing for change.

naseem bey harvey finkle Photo: Harvey Finkle

Naseem Bey, a 10th grader at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School (KCAPA), talked of textbooks with 10 pages missing.

If you need a particular page, “you might have to find someone with that page,” Bey said.

Khyeanna Mallette, a junior at Philadelphia Military Academy, remembered leaving a physical education class with a headache and having to get an ice bag from the school’s secretary because there was no nurse on duty that day.

Othella Stanback, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, said that one of the American history classes was so crowded early in the school year that some students had to stand up or sit on radiators. Her roster has already been changed twice.

For these and other students at District schools, the system’s massive budget cuts have hit classrooms, cafeterias, and libraries in ways both large and small. It is not hard to find students who are angry and speaking out about the harm done to their schools.

With crowded stairwells, empty nurses’ stations, and understaffed school offices, many students said the educational process has become a struggle unlike anything they have seen in past years.

To deal with a $304 million shortfall, the District cut thousands of positions last June, laying off nearly 4,000 employees. Although half of those have been called back, District schools are operating with nearly 3,000 fewer employees than last year.

After receiving $45 million in federal funding that the state had been withholding, Superintendent William Hite did restore 80 guidance counselors and dozens of other school staff this fall, including assistant principals, teachers, and school operations officers.

District officials contend that all high schools will have a full-time counselor and that class sizes at KCAPA, Philadelphia Military Academy, and Benjamin Franklin meet the maximum number of 33 students mandated by the now-expired Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract.

But many students expressed resentment at Gov. Corbett and the School Reform Commission over the impact that these severe budget cuts have had on their daily lives.

“They always told us education was the key,” said Mallette as she sat in the offices of Youth United for Change (YUC), where she is a member.

“Now they’re trying to take the key away from us.”

The closings factor

The closing of 24 schools, including seven high schools, has also taken its toll.

Sharron Snyder, a junior at Benjamin Franklin, said that the atmosphere at her school has changed with the addition of students from Vaux and University City high schools, both of which closed in June.

“This year, no one got lockers,” Snyder said.

“The hallways are so crowded it’s impossible to get to class on time. The teachers are trying their hardest, but you can’t get one-on-one help.”

Snyder also pointed out that fights occur more frequently and take longer to be defused because of a shortage of security officers.

According to a District spokesperson, enrollment at Franklin has increased from 570 in June to 840 in November.

Stanback, a former University City student, said one of the things she misses about her old school is the ambiance of the cafeteria. Now she skips lunch, except for what she can get from vending machines.

“You were family when you walked in the door. The cafeteria was a cafeteria,” she said. “Here, it looks like they’re serving food in a jail.”

One of her most painful recent moments, she said, was seeing a favorite math teacher from University City, who was laid off, working as a bouncer in a West Philadelphia bar.

Stanback said that in the future she expects to walk past the University City school building “and see Drexel has built a condo.”

Bey, formerly a student at Carroll High School, which also closed, said he feels cheated as a result of all the cuts at KCAPA.

“At Carroll, there was a computer cart on every floor. [Here] you don’t see that. I don’t even know where the computer lab is,” he said.

“This is ridiculous. How can they take all that money from education?”

The absence of assistant principals at the high school level, in particular, has been noticed by students. Bey said that many administrative duties that would be handled by assistant principals are being piled onto principals, giving them little time for individual student attention.

Without an assistant principal, “there’s more fights happening, and some of the staff seem more tense,” Bey said.

At Benjamin Franklin, 10th grader Benny Ramos said, “I used to be able to go into the principal’s office and say ‘I’ve got a problem’ and she’d say, ‘Close the door and let’s talk.’ Or she’d say, ‘Get a soda and chill out.’” The former Carroll student said that’s not the case now.

Facing fewer staff

Taeniece Howard, a junior at Constitution High School, remembered coming to school recently with a headache and having to endure the pain while in class because there was no nurse on duty.

“I had my head down on the desk the whole time in chemistry. I wasted the whole day just laying my head down [because] I had nowhere to go.”

The absence of full-time nurses at District schools has been a hot-button issue for students and parents, especially since the death of Bryant Elementary School 6th grader Laporshia Massey. Massey died in September, hours after apparently suffering from asthma symptoms at school. There was no nurse on duty at Bryant that day.

Madeline Clapier, a senior at Constitution High School, said counseling support for college applications was lacking this fall. She and other Constitution High students have helped to organize weekly protests calling for increased state education funding. (Photo: Charles Mostoller)

 

Madeline Clapier, a senior at Constitution, said she was glad to hear when the District announced the rehiring of 80 guidance counselors, but that it came too late for her. Clapier said that she could have used a counselor’s help in filing early decision college applications. To make matters worse, she said the school was no longer able to offer the advanced Spanish classes she needed. Though the school paid for an online Rosetta Stone course, Clapier said, “they can’t do that for everyone.”

The loss of time with art teachers was also painful for students.

“Our art teacher was cut down from five days to two days,” Clapier said.

“What about people who need electives to get into college?”

Lifting their voices

Youth advocacy around the issue of District budget cuts has been significant this school year.

Constitution students have raised their voices about inadequate funding by rallying once a week in front of Gov. Corbett’s Center City office. Members of YUC and Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) also participated in the protests.

A throng of students from Constitution presented a list of seven “expectations” to the Corbett administration, saying that “the state of Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia need to follow their social responsibility of creating a proper learning environment for Philadelphia students.”

Tim Eller, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, responded, “The department appreciates the efforts of the students. … Nearly all of the concerns raised are matters that are under the control of the local school district.”

Eller added, “Pennsylvania taxpayers are investing more than $1.3 billion in the Philadelphia School District, more than the 62 school districts in the four surrounding counties combined.”

But students are convinced that not enough is being done, and they are determined to be heard.

“We’re just going to get louder,” Snyder said.

PSU members joined with the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) in a September rally outside the Union League, where leaders of the Gates Foundation and Walton Foundation met to discuss restructuring public school systems.

“These are folks the students thought were trying to capitalize on the crisis by closing more schools,” said PSU executive director Hiram Rivera.

PSU members also spent the summer canvassing neighborhoods, talking to youth about education issues.

YUC members were also active with PCAPS, helping to lobby for a change in Philadelphia’s property tax abatement program, which now offers a 10-year abatement for building developers and owners, making them exempt from paying property taxes on new construction or renovations. Opponents of this program claim that it deprives the District of millions of needed tax dollars.

YUC has also been pushing for a funding formula for the state’s public schools and will be quizzing gubernatorial candidates in the upcoming 2014 statewide election about their stands on the issue.

Although the mass walkouts of last spring have not been replicated this fall, students continue to protest.

“Even if people have given up on us,” Clapier said, “we haven’t given up on ourselves.”

 

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