Category Archives: PFT

A broader approach to helping kids: A call for shared responsibility

 

 

by Christopher Paslay

 

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Jerry Jordan, President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.  This article appeared in the May edition of the PFT Reporter.

 

A child came to class late one morning with a sad, almost weary look on his face, and carrying a small suitcase. When his teacher asked what was wrong, the boy replied: “I didn’t do what my Mommy told me to do this morning, and she got angry and packed my suitcase and yelled at me to get out, to go live with my Dad. She said she didn’t want me there any more.”

 

The child was six years old.

 

A PFT member teaching special education in a Philadelphia school shared this story with a PFT staff member a few years ago. The teacher worried aloud, “He was so sad, alone and felt so unloved, and I didn’t know how to help him, and I certainly didn’t know how I could keep him focused on schoolwork with so much turmoil in his life.”

 

Most PFT members who work with students can tell similar stories, because most of us have known students whose parents have lost their jobs, homes, freedom or lives. We know students who live in homeless shelters and children who move from one foster home to another. . . .

 

Yet, as teachers, we are held accountable for reaching and teaching all children, regardless of the myriad of factors that influence their academic success or failure. We, and no one else, are held accountable for raising test scores in classes whose sizes we can’t control, in schools that are falling apart, without enough books or computers and too often without the support of families.

 

Raise test scores, we are told, even with students who miss 20, 40 or 50 school days a year, who don’t have the eyeglasses they need to see and who haven’t a quiet place in which to do homework.

 

And we dare not talk about the hardships our students face, because then we are accused of making “excuses” for not raising test scores the way a factory might raise production of ball bearings.

 

Calling for teacher accountability is politically correct. “Excuses” are not. Neither is talking about the “big picture” of our students’ lives, about the undeniable link between student outcomes and the social and economic conditions in which children live.

 

In the same way that we’ve narrowed the curriculum to focus on preparing for “The Test,” we’ve narrowed the discussion about what kids need to a single place and person: the school and the teacher. . . .

 

This article by Jerry Jordan is powerful because it examines the concept of holistic education—the idea that it takes an entire village to teach a child.  As Jordan so clearly states, teachers need support from schools, parents and communities, and asking for these resources is by no means “making excuses”. 

 

The idea of holistic education is nothing new.  The Harlem Children’s Zone, founded by Geoffrey Canada, is based on shared responsibility and is gaining momentum in NYC. 

 

So is a movement called A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA).  As Jordan spoke about in the May edition of the PFT Reporter, the BBA is an impressive group of educators, legislators, Nobel laureates and foundations from across the country, who are embracing a Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that seeks to reduce the social and economic disadvantages that sabotages achievement.

 

A Broader, Bolder Approach, or BBA, believes that schools alone cannot “close the entire gap between students from different backgrounds in a substantial, consistent and sustainable manner.”

 

Philadelphia’s struggling children need the help of everyone—teachers and schools, businesses and the community, parents and politicians.  It is exciting to see Jerry Jordan, as well as BBA’s other noteworthy leaders and legislators, getting on board with a movement that emphasizes teamwork in education.        

 

Holistic education is the future.  To support the BBA’s focus on synergy and community cooperation, please sign the petition for shared responsibility.      

 

 

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District should mandate after school activities instead of extending school day

by Christopher Paslay

 

It’s no secret that Philadelphia School District officials want to extend the length of the school day.  Increased instructional time was a high priority on Dr. Ackerman’s recent “wishlist” for the District. 

 

Although I don’t agree that more is always better, research shows that keeping kids in school longer improves tests scores and keeps them out of harm’s way.  KIPP Philadelphia Charter School is a case in point.  They operate under an extended school day and school year, and their PSSA test scores are well above the Philadelphia School District average.      

 

However, extending the school day has its drawbacks with staff.  Teacher turnover at KIPP is high, and compensating instructors for the long hours is difficult (many teachers work 10 to 12 hours days when you factor in lesson planning and assessment); the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers fought the increased school day in the past because the District wasn’t willing to pay for the extra time.

 

But there is a solution to the problem.  The District can extend the time students spend in programs without placing this extra burden on the teachers. 

 

Instead of extending the length of the school day, the District should mandate after school activities for all its students.  And the District could use ASAP (After School Activities Partnerships) as a partner.  To quote ASAP’s website, “An estimated 45,000 kids citywide spend between 20-25 hours a week alone after school – with the most dangerous hours between 3 pm and 6 pm. These unsupervised young people are much more likely to be the victims of crime or become involved in risky behaviors. Additionally, lack of after school activity could be contributing to the rise in overweight children. Recent reports that Philadelphia has both the highest crime and poverty rates of the ten largest cities in the nation provide strong impetus for improving the lives of the city’s kids.”

 

ASAP has already served 15,773 Philadelphia youth to date, and organized 1,210 clubs (primarily volunteer-led in schools, recreation centers and libraries).

 

“Research shows that after-school programs deter negative behaviors while improving achievement and attendance,” said Maria Walker and Marciene Mattleman in an opinion piece in today’s Inquirer headlined, Enrich children and the city with after-school programs.    

 

In their article, Walker and Mattleman also noted ASAP’s ability to get students involved in playing chess.  “The Chess Challenge is ASAP’s centerpiece initiative, with more than 3,500 kids playing in schools, libraries, recreation and community centers, shelters, and the Youth Study Center,” they noted.  “Studies show that chess teaches strategic thinking. School administrators say young chess players are more likely to see the consequences of their actions and avoid risky behaviors.” 

 

Mandating after school activities would be a win-win for everybody.  Much of ASAP is run by volunteers and funded by donations, so the District wouldn’t have to pay extra money.  ASAP could be supplemented by athletic programs run by schools in the District, where coaches would be compensated for their time.      

 

The District could start small and work its way up.  Students could be given the option of whether they wanted to participate in fall, winter or spring activities.  They’d have the choice of playing a varsity or intramural sport, or joining a club.  This would surely increase participation in athletics and extra curricular activities within the District, programs already established and funded by the District. 

 

At midnight on August 31st of this year, when the Philadelphia Federation of Teacher’s contract extension is up, I can guarantee a sticking point of negotiations will be extending the length of the school day.  If the District opts to mandate after school activities instead of increasing an already lengthy school day (and doing so without properly compensating teachers and instructional staff), then a new contract just might be ironed out sooner rather than later.      

 

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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One Year Deal for Teachers is a Lot of Tricks and No Treats

 

by Ed Olsen

I’d like to address a few additional points that I feel are worth mentioning in response to Dr. Ackerman’s statements as of late in the press. 

First, she claims that the district’s proposed one year contract is to bide time in order to “develop a strategic multiyear contract that tackles the tough issues that are key to student success.”  How can the PFT be so sure that this one year contract won’t set a precedent?  Has Dr. Ackerman even considered the costs of healthcare premiums?  According to the National Coalition on Health Care, premiums rose an average of 6.1% in 2007.  If the PFT were to agree to a one year contract, that would also mean that the contracts with the various healthcare insurance providers would only be one year.  This allows them to raise rates as they see fit as opposed to predetermined rates that would be negotiated in a multiyear deal.  Who, I wonder, will be asked to cover these increased costs?

Second, I’d like to review the five-year–that’s what I said, five-year–contract that Dr. Ackerman negotiated for herself with the SRC to the tune of $325,000 annually; and let’s not even get into the bonuses and perks: 20% annual bonuses for performance; $100,000 retention bonus after three years; $1,000,000 life insurance policy paid by the district; a late model sedan for business AND personal use; a blackberry; a cell phone; a laptop computer; a printer and a fax machine.  Oh, and I almost forgot, the district agreed to pay up to $15,000 to move her to Philadelphia.  That contract reminds me of my first contract when I was hired by the city on September 29, 2000; except now that I think back, they must have forgotten some things. 

I suppose it started with my salary.  They left off the last zero, and my retention bonus was only about $4500.  They didn’t pay to move me here, but they had me sign a new employee residency certification that required me to live within the city limits (eliminated from the contract in 2000).  I do have a life insurance policy, but that comes out of my pocket.  Same goes for the car and the cell phone.  My father-in-law was able to get my wife and me laptops and a printer from a business that was upgrading because I guess the district figured laptops are probably not useful for teachers, so they never gave me one.  You can see the similarities here.

I will admit that Dr. Ackerman certainly has more education, experience, and responsibilities that deserve higher compensation, but how about a little “trickle down economics”?  Shouldn’t we at least be given a fair, multiyear contract like our superintendent?

Now let’s turn to the issue of increasing the staff day to “provide a safer and learning environment.”  The current PFT contract already has provisions for allowing the district to schedule the teacher work day to start before and end after the student day.  It even requires, “in the elementary schools, the student day shall begin ten minutes after the teacher day.”  (Article XVII.B.1(b).)  The same is true of other staff such as NTAs, secretaries, and paraprofessionals.  The PFT contract allows teachers and NTAs to be scheduled between 7:00 am and 5:00 pm, while secretaries and paraprofessionals can be scheduled between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm.  What we really need to provide a safer learning environment is to hire more teachers, NTAs, and school police officers, not just make our staff work longer hours. 

As for absences, she wants to review the “practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence.”  Well for starters, this policy is a school district policy that was reiterated in a memo by Paul Vallas a few years ago and the memo states that consecutive absences shall be considered one incident of absence, not one absence.  Staff is still required to take a personal illness day for each day of absence.  There is also a district policy that requires principals to issue a warning to staff after their third incident of absence and suggests disciplinary action after the fifth and seventh. 

While we will all agree that a substitute is no substitute for a regular classroom teacher, even the teachers and staff of Philadelphia get sick from time to time; it’s not like we are around hundreds of kids everyday.  I bet some of us even have children that get sick and can’t attend daycare or school sometimes.

Finally, the issue of the “current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”  Remember my first contract? I was hired by the school district on September 29th and didn’t start until October 16, 2000.  The PA Public School Employees’ Retirement System charges a penalty based on how far you are from a normal retirement benefit, which is 35 years of service.  PSERS reduces your retirement by one quarter of one percent per month for each month you are under normal retirement requirements.  In other words, if a teacher was hired after September 1, then they can not retire until that date or they will be charged a penalty.  Teachers have the option of continuing to work past their 35 year retirement requirement, but as many former teachers have told me on their last days, “When its time to go, its time to go.”  Does the district really want to force teachers to stay when their hearts are no longer in it?  This sounds a bit Draconian and harkens to the days of indentured servitude. 

I have been a bit harsh in my response to Dr. Ackerman and her one year proposal, but it feels like a slap in the face to me and thousands of other teachers and staff member that work tirelessly and volunteer extra time and effort to teach and nurture the youth of the Philadelphia School District.  As PFT President, Jerry Jordan, states, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning condition.”  The PFT contract expired on August 31 and was extended for 60 days.  That means it is set to expire again on October 31, Halloween.  I hope for the sake of the students that Dr. Ackerman has a treat for Jerry Jordan and the PFT, and not a trick. 

Ed Olsen is a Social Studies Teacher and the PFT Building Rep. at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.

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Sandra Dungee Glenn Addresses PFT Contract Situation

by Christopher Paslay

Sandra Dungee Glenn, the chairwomen of the School Reform Commission, wrote a commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News headlined, “School progress & contracts”. In it she touts the experience of Arlene Ackerman, the Philadelphia School District’s newly appointed CEO, and highlights the support the district is receiving from “strong public education advocates” Mayor Nutter and Governor Ed Rendell, and “pro-education members in City Council”.

Dungee Glenn also emphasizes the academic progress the school district has made since the SRC’s inception in 2002, and “is excited by the potential to catapult this district forward through strategic partnerships that bring resources and support to our children.”

With that said, I’d like to commend Miss Dungee Glenn for her enthusiasm. Although her commentary is not a direct response to the article I wrote last Thursday in the Inquirer (How about the teachers?), I do find the timing quite curious. I also find the content curious as well. Dungee Glenn’s piece is well written, and it clearly rebuts (if not defends) most of the points brought up in my Inquirer commentary.

I thank Miss Dungee Glenn for writing this. It means she is open minded enough to hear the voice of a Philadelphia public school teacher, a voice I believe echoes the sentiments of a large majority of Philadelphia’s teachers (and quite possibly the PFT).

There are issues in Dungee Glenn’s article that need to be addressed, however. One is the idea of having teachers come to school before students and stay after they leave. Let’s be honest here—this has little to do with school safety. In fact, there are teachers who might feel less safe being forced to stay in the building after the bell. If the SRC wants to extend the school day, then they should just come out and say so; regardless, I feel too much emphasis is put on the length of the school day. There is a point of diminishing returns. More isn’t always better.

Second: I don’t believe the SRC is being totally honest concerning their one year contract offer to the PFT. In my opinion, the one year deal is more about control than it is about finding long term solutions. Contract negotiations have been going on since February 1st. Why hasn’t the long-term deal been put in place yet?

I hope this exchange (and our recent articles in the press) have opened the lines of communication with the SRC and the PFT. I truly believe we all want the same thing—the best educational resources for students, teachers, parents and the city. Hopefully we can all get on the same page and work this out soon.

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Arlene Ackerman Responds to Inquirer Commentary

by Christopher Paslay

Arlene C. Ackerman, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, responded to my commentary in Thursday’s Philadelphia Inquirer by writing a letter to the editor. The letter, headlined, “Taking Exception,” explained that the School Reform Commission is working hard to rectify the problems faced by the Philadelphia School District, and that there are “no easy answers”.

I appreciate Ackerman’s diligence and professionalism for responding to my questions. However, I’d like to further explore what she labels “four areas in need of discussion”.

First, Ackerman says, “We must work together to improve teacher quality and retention by raising base salary for teachers and offering differentiated pay for teachers in hard-to-fill positions and chronically underperforming schools.”

I agree with raising base salaries. This will help Philadelphia compete with the suburbs. However, I don’t know if differentiated pay will draw teachers to hard-to-fill positions. I think cutting class size in these schools might work better.

Second, she says, “We need to provide a safer learning environment by ensuring that our staff comes to school before students arrive and stay after students leave, unlike what is stipulated in the current contract.”

Let’s face it. This is just a nifty way for the SRC to justify lengthening the school day. In my opinion, the length of the school day isn’t the root problem of children failing academically.

Third, she says, “We need to ensure adequate notice of teachers’ plans to retire or resign well in advance of the new school year. It is current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”

Here’s the deal on this. Teachers retire in the middle of the year because they get hired in the middle of the year. It’s a pension thing. The only answer to this is to make sure that the SRC hires all of its teacher before September 1st.

Finally, she says, “We must review the practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence. It deprives children of valuable instructional time.”

This is factually inaccurate. According to the current contract, multiple consecutive days off doesn’t count as one absence, it counts as one incident. Teachers receive 10 sick days and 3 personal days each year. Each time they are absent, they lose one of these days.

After three “incidents” teachers are given a disciplinary memo by their principal. In my opinion, this is nonsense. Why should teachers be penalized fore using contractual sick time?

Again, I appreciate the fact Dr. Ackerman took the time to respond to my commentary. If anything, it shows she truly cares. Hopefully, through this correspondence, the lines of communication will remain open between the PFT and the SRC, and a contract agreement (multiyear) will be reached soon.

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How About the Teachers?

by Christopher Paslay

Here is a reprint of a commentary I published in The Philadelphia Inquirer last Thursday, headlined, “How about the teachers?” To comment, please click on the link below.

***

After six months of failed negotiations with the School Reform Commission, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is still without a contract. The Sept. 1 deadline has come and gone, and both sides remain at an impasse.

But can you really blame SRC members for the stalled talks? It has been a long year for them.

In March, they voted to hire Arlene Ackerman as the district’s new CEO, and I can only imagine that this was an extremely exhausting process.

First they had to work out Ackerman’s base pay – which ended up being $325,000, the second-highest superintendent salary in the country.

Then they had the task of formulating Ackerman’s retention bonus, which is estimated to be $100,000.

Next the SRC had the matter of extending the contracts of the city’s education management organizations, the private consulting firms that charge the district millions of dollars to run some of the city’s public schools.

The decision to extend their contracts must have been daunting, given that studies show these private managers perform no better than Philadelphia’s traditional public-school officials.

Last year, Research for Action, a nonprofit organization working in educational research and reform, conducted a survey on the private managers.

The report stated: “We find little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

In other words, education management organizations aren’t worth the money.

How did SRC members react to this? In June, they decided to extend the contracts of 32 of the 38 privately run schools.

And then there’s the issue of renewing the contracts of Philadelphia’s charter schools.

In April, the SRC approved a new five-year term of operation for 13 of Philadelphia’s 16 charter schools whose charters were due to expire at the end of the 2007-08 school year.

As with the private managers, statistics show charter-school managers perform no better than traditional school officials.

Research for Action also published a study evaluating the performance of Philadelphia’s charters.

The study concluded: “Students’ average gains when attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experienced while at traditional public schools.”

And then there are the Philadelphia Academy and Northwood Academy charter schools, both now under federal criminal investigation for missing funds and illegal land deals.

How did SRC members respond to these findings? They had a meeting of the minds and decided to approve the opening of seven more charter schools by the fall of 2009.

The SRC has had quite a busy year. This probably explains why it hasn’t gotten around to ironing out that new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

I mean, why make time for the teachers? All we really do is educate the kids, right? Teach them how to read, write, communicate. Mold them into critical thinkers and productive members of society.

And where has Mayor Nutter been during contract talks? Did he take the PFT’s endorsement and run? What about “Putting Children First,” his plan for public education?

As a Philadelphia public school teacher, I remember his plan well. He was supposed to use his influence as mayor to reduce class sizes, improve safety inside schools, expand programs to retain quality teachers and principals, among other things.

Of course, when Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, put these very issues on the table during contract negotiations, the SRC balked.

Jordan wrote in a recent letter to union members that the SRC was “not willing to put into the contract any language that addresses these serious issues.”

In fact, the school district is moving in the opposite direction. According to Jordan’s letter, the SRC is now fighting for a one-year contract.

Failing charter schools and ineffective private managers get three- to five-year extensions, but the workhorse known as the Philadelphia public school teacher deserves only a one-year extension?

This is a slap in the face on so many levels.

The school district needs to get its priorities straight. It must show its teachers some respect and offer us a fair, multiyear contract.


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