PFT Holds Strong, Wins 4% Raise and 10 Month Contract Extension

by Christopher Paslay


Kudos to PFT President Jerry Jordan and members of the Collective Bargaining Team.  The Philadelphia School District agreed to extend the PFT’s current contract another 10 months to August 31st, 2009.  Even more important, the SRC agreed to a 4% salary increase for teachers that will take effect on March 15, 2009.      


Although this extension means Jerry Jordan and the PFT will be back at the bargaining table almost immediately to work out another deal, I believe the 10 month extension was a win-win for everyone.  It was a win for teachers because we didn’t lose any health benefits (in fact, we were given the choice of a medical insurance opt-out program), and we also retained valuable resources such as prep time and seniority. 


The extension was also a win for Dr. Ackerman and the School Reform Commission.  Now the new CEO can have the time needed to acclimate herself to the district and figure out how teachers and the district can come together to accomplish the same goal: To build a better learning environment for the children of Philadelphia.


Hopefully, the PFT and SRC will start working now on a new, multi-year contract, one that is fair and respectful to all parties involved.

Schools Reflect Communities

“If parents and students don’t get actively involved, how will extending the school day improve academic achievement?  If education isn’t made a priority in children’s homes, what will requiring more professional development for teachers accomplish?”


To respond to today’s Inquirer commentary, “Schools reflect communities,” click the comment button below.


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If You Can’t Fill Out a Meal Form, You Don’t Deserve Free Eats

by Christopher Paslay


I often joke with my friends that the Republican party helps rich people stay rich, and that the Democrat party helps poor people stay poor.  The slogans for change in the recent presidential race are very ironic: Both candidates are fighting for change to allow voters in their party to stay the same and be more comfortable doing it.


Comfort is to change what water is to a campfire.  Real change is the antithesis of complacency.  It’s about motivation—about that fire that gets lit inside your stomach and energizes you to overcome obstacles.


This is why I agree with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to change the rules of its Universal Feeding Program, a free breakfast and lunch program offered solely in the Philadelphia School District.  Currently, the program doesn’t require students or their families to fill out an application form to get access to free meals. 


However, to better monitor the program, the USDA is requiring all children eligible for free or reduced meals to fill out an application starting in the 2010 school year. 


School district officials, as well as Philadelphia Community Legal Services, who helped conceive Universal Feeding along with Temple University, were upset to hear about the program’s rule change.  Jonathan Stein, general counsel of Community Legal Services, was particularly displeased. 


The Inquirer paraphrased Stein’s disappointment: Simple as it sounds, the process of having poor children bring home lunch forms to fill out is a daunting task, said Stein. . . . Children forget, and poor parents already beset by outsized difficulties are unwilling or unable to deal with the forms.  And so they languish unsigned.  And children miss out on meals.


Loose translation: Filling out a form for a free meal is just too difficult. 


This is just another example of how school district officials and community leaders fail to hold students and their parents accountable for even the most menial of tasks.  Despite the misleading editorial in the Inquirer, Free School Meals, the USDA is not cutting a free meal program.  They are simply trying to better monitor and organize it by requiring students and their parents to fill out a simple form.      


But the buck never stops with the students or their parents.  We as teachers in the district are taught the mantra, No excuses! Let’s raise the bar!  Yet when you look closely at the core mentality of many of our communities, the whole idea of high expectations is a hypocrisy.      


Nothing in life is free.  Of course there is a stigma attached to filling out a free meal form.  It’s the stigma that lights that fire in the student’s belly that says, Man, it’s embarrassing to be poor.  Maybe I should take school seriously and make something of myself.


Struggling families in Philadelphia need tough love.  We must help them grow stronger by holding them accountable for a minimum level of tasks.  If filling out a free meal form is just too daunting, as Jonathan Stein says, we as teachers and community leaders must work closer with our struggling neighbors to teach them the basic life skills needed to survive.  The last thing we should do is reinforce their bad habits by refusing to hold them accountable for their self-destructive behavior.


The USDA’s rule change on free meals is a step in the right direction.  Stigma and hunger pangs just might be the wake-up call necessary to get struggling families on their feet and win back control of their lives.

Why Philly Kids Can’t Read

by Christopher Paslay


Although the Philadelphia School District’s 2008 PSSA reading scores have improved for the sixth straight year, only 45.9% of students can read at a proficient level.  As a high school English teacher, here’s what I believe the district must do to ensure that 100% of our students are reading on grade level.


Cut class sizes.  To keep the teacher-to-student ratio low, there should be no more than 27 students in a class (let’s get serious; it should be no more than 15).  This way, teachers could give the students the one-on-one attention needed to help them get through challenging assignments.


Track students by ability level, to keep slower students from falling behind, and more advanced students from being held back.  This way, teachers could use one text for the whole class, and analyze it much more thoroughly.


Place a reading specialist in every class.  This would further improve the teacher-to-student ratio, and provide a valuable resource for reading strategies. 


Encourage students to practice reading at home, and implement the reading strategies they learn in the classroom.  To make this work, teachers would need the help of parents.  Moms and dads need to be there to help students work through difficult text during homework assignments, and to help with reading comprehension.


Unfortunately, city schools don’t operate in this kind of learning environment.  Here’s how things work in the Philadelphia School District:


Class sizes are not manageable.  When you squeeze 33 students in a room, there isn’t enough time to give each student the one-on-one attention needed to teach them to read properly.  Class sizes aren’t manageable because the district doesn’t want to spend the money to hire more teachers .    


Classes are heterogeneously grouped.  This means you have kids in a class who are on different reading levels.  Some are on 6th grade levels, some are on 11th grade levels.  Which means when you teach, you have to spend time differentiating instruction (this is a fancy way of saying the teacher must adapt the reading material to ALL ability levels . . . something that is impossible to do).  And you not only have a bunch of students on different reading levels, but you have English Language Learners as well (EELs).  These are foreign born kids who can barely speak English at all.  And then you have inclusion students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  These are students with learning disabilities who are mainstreamed into the class and need even more specialized instruction from the teacher who is trying to teach 32 other students (on different reading levels) to read.  Classes aren’t grouped by ability level because the district doesn’t want to damage the self-esteem of the students.  In other words, it’s better to pretend that kids are smart now, and let them find out the truth the hard way later in the real world.      


You must teach without a reading specialist.  Sorry, the teacher-to-student ratio must stay high.  And no, you can’t have specially trained teachers to help you implement reading strategies.  Again, it’s not in the budget. 


Most kids don’t practice reading at home.  Why? Because education isn’t a priority in the home.  Moms and dads either don’t care, or aren’t there, or can’t read themselves.  So the kids don’t practice reading.  But you can’t hold parents accountable; it’s not politically correct.    


This is the reality of the situation.  Sure, the Philadelphia School District is making progress in reading, but at a snail’s pace.  If the city and the SRC and the various communities of Philadelphia genuinely cared about teaching kids to read, they would cut class sizes, group kids by ability level, hire reading specialists and demand parents get involved with school work. 


Then all students would be able to read. 




Phila. School District Must Drop Minimum-50 Grading Policy

by Christopher Paslay


A zero should not equal a 50.  But in the Philadelphia School District, that’s exactly what a student receives when he or she fails to do a single ounce of work: a 50.


Although most of my students are hard workers and turn in quality work, there are always a handful of kids who either skip school or just flat out refuse to turn in assignments. 


A prime example is a student I had last school year who received a 94 on her first report card.  She was intelligent and a very good writer and critical thinker.  But soon she got caught up with the wrong group of friends, and she began cutting school.  Despite conferences and phone calls home, this student disappeared from class for nearly two months. 


When it was time to turn in grades in January, despite her fast start, she was clearly failing the class; her 22 for the second marking period added to her 94 on the first averaged to a 58 cumulative grade. 


However, the Philadelphia School District’s computer system doesn’t allow for a grade below a 50 to be entered.  So when her grade was computed, she had a 72 after two quarters.  This was ridiculous, because she had missed nearly six weeks of work.  The worst part about it was the message it sent to her and her mother: she could skip school and still pass.


I explained this predicament to administrators at my school, and they told me to have no fear, that at the end of the year when I imputed the final grade, I could use the override feature on the district’s grading system and replace the inflated grade with actual earned one.  When I head this I thought: Sure, I can override the final grade, but by that time, it will be too late.  The student will have already failed the course.    


Anyway, the third marking period came and went and this student’s behavior continued.  Although I made some headway with the student’s mother, the student still had problems with cutting, and her third quarter grade came to a 60.  Of course, when I put the 60 into the system with the inflated 50 from the second quarter, the computer added up the three marking periods and her grade came to a 68%.  Still passing!


I was stunned.  The student thought she had beaten the system.  Of course, this wasn’t really true, except on paper.  Her grade was really a 58%, and at the end of the year, no matter what the computer said her grade was, I was going to override it with the grade she earned. 


Fortunately, in the end, a breakthrough was made and things worked out.  The student began attending regularly, and finished the fourth quarter strong, making up some of the missed work from earlier in the year.  Her final grade came to a 66%, and she passed the course by the skin of her teeth. 


What’s the moral of the story?  That the Philadelphia School District should drop its minimum-50 grading policy.  Although in theory it’s supposed to stop kids from mathematically eliminating themselves from passing early in the year (and keep them motivated), all it’s really doing is giving students a false sense of security and not holding them accountable for their work. 


For more on the topic, read Steve Friess’s article in USA Today headlined, “At some schools, failure goes from zero to 50”.

McCain and Obama on Education

The presidential election is nearly two weeks away.  With the U.S. economy and the war in Iraq taking center stage, education has slipped to the back burner. 


For those teachers who want to know specifically where McCain and Obama stand on education, there is a great article in USA Today by Greg Toppo headlined, “Where they stand: McCain, Obama split on education”. 


The article gives a side-by-side comparison of how McCain and Obama will handle teacher recruitment, federal funding and NCLB, charter schools and school choice, early childhood education and college affordability. 


To read the article, click here.



Teachers Should Not Wear Campaign Buttons in Schools

by Christopher Paslay


New York City public school teachers should be ashamed of themselves.  It’s one thing to campaign for a presidential candidate among colleagues, and quite another to politick in front of students.


Apparently, The United Federation of Teachers, NYC’s teacher’s union, doesn’t agree.  According to a story by the Associated Press, “The Teacher’s union for the nation’s largest public school system accused the city on Friday of banning political campaign buttons and sued to reverse the policy, declaring that free speech rights were violated.”


The lawsuit was filed yesterday in a US District Court in Manhattan.


Judge Lewis A. Kaplan quickly ruled against wearing the buttons, explaining that teachers must remain politically neutral while on duty in front of their students.  The judge also added that although most students would understand that a campaign button worn by an educator represented the personal views of the teacher only, there would be “inevitable misrepresentations by the minority”.


As a public school teacher in Philadelphia, I’m shocked that any educator with a conscience would want to wear their political views on their shirtsleeve in front of their students. 


For starters, it’s unethical.  A public school teacher is an agent of the state, and therefore must not show any religious or political bias, one way or another.  Just as teachers are forbidden to pray in front of students during instruction (even if it is for personal reasons), teachers should not advertise their personal politics to their classes by wearing a campaign button. 


This in my opinion is intolerable, because students should be taught to make decisions about the world themselves.  They should be given a balanced, objective representation of events, and be given the space to process this information on their own.  Young people in grades K -12 are too innocent and impressionable to be exposed to the spin from only one side of the political spectrum; our children should be at least college-aged before they are politically indoctrinated by educators. 


As a teacher, I never push my political views on young people.  When my students ask, Mr. Paslay, who are you voting for?,  I give them my stock answer: I haven’t decided yet.  And when the presidential candidates come up in classroom conversation, I always make it a point to remain neutral and give equal attention to both parties. 


The youth of America need to be taught HOW to think, not WHAT to think.  Educators must teach students critical thinking skills, not subtlety bait them into accepting the agendas of certain political parties. 

District Must Expel 20 Students Involved in Sayre Brawl

by Christopher Paslay


It appears that the Philadelphia School District is finally getting serious about their “zero tolerance” policy for violence in schools.  According to a story in today’s Inquirer, “Philadelphia School District officials have vowed to expel the system’s most violent students, tighten codes for others, and attempt to streamline a dysfunctional, inconsistent disciplinary system.”


“We mean business,” district CEO Arlene Ackerman said, vowing to enforce the zero-tolerance policy to the letter of the law.  Yesterday, Ackerman sent out a letter to parents and students detailing this policy.  The heart of her letter reads as follows:


Effective immediately, school administrators are required to suspend a student or group of students for 10 days with intent to expel when there is reasonable and probable grounds to believe that a student or group of students has:

          –Assaulted an adult or another student

          –Committed or incited an act of violence

          –Possessed or has transported onto school property materials to utilize as potential weapons

          If a student commits offenses in any of the aforementioned categories he/she will neither remain at his/her present school nor will be transferred to another district school.  Instead, I will recommend that your students be immediately enrolled in an alternative school placement and, pending the result of an expulsion hearing by the School Reform Commission, will not be allowed to return to a district school for a minimum of one year.  Expulsions may be permanent.  


Mayor Nutter also supported this policy.  “We collectively—the city and the school district—are saying enough is enough,” Nutter said.  “How could no child have been expelled from the school system in four years is impossible for me to understand.” 


No expulsions in four years is not so hard to understand when you teach inside the district.  For starters, keeping tabs on suspensions and expulsions are part of the No Child Left Behind Act.  In order for a school to make Adequate Yearly Progress, suspensions must be kept to a minimum; this might be why suspensions were never enforced.


Second, it’s people like Sheila Simmons, education director at Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, who keep the school district’s zero-tolerance policy for violence stuck in neutral.  Simmons believes the district should put its energy into preventing discipline problems before they start, not “throwing kids out” or “locking kids away”.


Although Simmons seems to mean well, she obviously doesn’t understand the dynamic involved in managing hundreds of students on a daily basis, and the fact that a line must be drawn in the sand.  With the lack of parental and community involvement (and the overall moral degradation of urban society), a school can only give a child so many second chances; soon the education of the children who know how to follow rules and respect authority must be made a priority over the violent youth who continue to rob others of their right to learn.


Kudos to Dr. Ackerman, Mayor Nutter, and the SRC for making safety and discipline a priority in Philadelphia public schools.  Now let’s see if we get results.  The district can put its money where its mouth is and start by making an example of the 20 students who used violence against teachers, police officers and other students last week during a brawl at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia.  The brawl supposedly started when school officials refused to admit students into the building because of dress code violations. 


These students should be suspended expeditiously.  And their hearings should be made public so others in the district can truly see that the Mayor and the SRC mean business.


Let’s ALL enforce our district’s policy of zero-tolerance for violence.  Students, teachers and principals alike should stand up for safety and the rights of the children who want to learn, and stop allowing bullies and thugs to run our schools.   

Philadelphia Needs More Disciplinary Schools

by R.B.


This is what I’ve noticed in my almost 15 years of teaching in Philly schools. 


In all the articles I’ve been reading, in the Inquirer, PSU, and Chalk and Talk, I find one element missing.  It’s not about money.  It’s not about certified teachers.  It’s about the idea that Philly is forced to teach all children.  I agree with this, but with a caveat; there are some students who need to be taken out of traditional schools and placed in alternative settings.


Who am I talking about?  The unruly students whose names come up repeatedly in the discipline office, year after year.  They are a major disruption to the majority of students who want to learn.  Notice I said majority. I believe in giving chances.  But enough is enough.  I’d like to think that if the parents of the students who cared about school sat in on class and witnessed these disruptions, they would be appalled enough to raise their voices in protest and anger.  Their children are being denied a full education because of a handful of disruptive students. 


I go back to my first year as an appointed teacher.  There was a woman who was going to ‘model’ a lesson for me.  The lesson took place after lunch, and it took her almost one half hour just to get to the motivator; she had already lost her temper with two children.  The principal, who was next door, had to come in and see what all the noise was.  Her lesson was interesting, but the disruptive students made it impossible for her to teach.


This is why the majority of students do not get a decent education.  We don’t hear about these problems in the suburbs, just in the inner city.  Why do these problems exist?  Because parents of failing students NEVER show up to school.  Parents who are fed up with their children, tired of teachers calling, don’t know what to do about their children.  These parents then turn around and blame the school for not providing for their child. 


I do believe every child can and wants to learn.  I also believe that students who are disruptive should not bounce from school to school, but be placed in an alternative program where their needs are better addressed. Maybe we should build more alternative schools for these inner city children.  If after one year the student has been suspended multiple times or called to the office multiple times (some schools don’t like suspending), the student must be transferred to an alternative school. 


I can not tell you the many times I have had incredible lessons that died before they even got started.  I can not tell you how many times I’ve watched students shut down because of the few that made it impossible to teach.  It’s not fair to the children who come to school to learn, and it’s not fair to the teachers who spend great amounts of time finding lessons that are not only interesting but allow for critical thinking.  Teachers and students should not be held hostage by a district that says, “we must teach everyone”.


Government is about the good of the people versus the good of the individual.  Maybe the district needs to change its policies so our attention lies with the good of the class, not with the good of a few disruptive individuals.  

The Top 10 Reasons Why Philly Lacks Teachers

by Silence Dogood


 According to a story in today’s Inquirer, “District lags in filling teacher vacancies,” a month into the new school year, the Philadelphia School District had 144 unfilled teaching jobs.  This is troubling to district officials, because big urban cities like New York, Chicago and Boston all opened with no vacancies.


Teacher recruitment experts, along with district CEO Arlene Ackerman and Michael Masch, the district’s chief business officer and temporary head of human resources, have been working hard to solve this problem. 


After much analysis and investigation, the district believes the reason for the teacher vacancies lies with their hiring process (it’s too complex and not streamlined enough), and that the current teacher contract “sets up a system where some teaching candidates cannot be interviewed until two weeks before school starts.” 


PFT President Jerry Jordan denied that the contract had anything to do with hiring.  He blamed the district for their lack of organization (might Ackerman be laying the groundwork for trying to strip teacher seniority?).


Other reasons given for the teacher shortage were the turnover of district brass, a national teacher shortage in certain subjects, and a lack of recruiting.


Now that the district and the “teacher recruitment experts” have given us their opinions, allow me to cut through all their educational rhetoric and political posturing and tell the world the top 10 reasons why there are 144 vacancies in Philadelphia public schools:


10.  The Philadelphia School District is one of the lowest paying districts in the five-county Greater Philadelphia Area.


9.  The Philadelphia School District does not offer its teachers tuition reimbursement.


8.  Class sizes in Philadelphia are the highest in the State.


7.  On any given day, 12,000 Philadelphia school students skip school.


6.  Parents of Philadelphia school children rarely get in involved with their child’s education.


5.  Philadelphia school teachers get punched in the face by their students.


4.  Many neighborhoods and communities in Philadelphia are not welcoming to teachers.  


3.  When it comes to money and resources, the district is a penny wise and a pound foolish (they spend $1.8 million on the executive staff when certain schools don’t have books, counselors, music programs or libraries).


2.  The district demoralizes its teachers.


1.  The SRC is only currently offering its teachers a one-year contract.


Yes, the Philadelphia School District sounds so inviting to new teachers.  If only they could straighten out their human resource problems (and rewrite that gosh-darn teacher contract!), I’m sure there would be a line of eager, highly qualified teachers circling around 440 N. Broad Street with their resumes in their hands.