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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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. 




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.

Philadelphia School District Officials Remain Out-of-Touch


Note: The author of this article is a Philadelphia public school teacher who requested to remain anonymous. 

After reading Ms. Dungee Glenn’s thinly veiled attempt to rally public support for a one year teacher contract (“School Progress and Contracts,” October 1), I am curious as to why she conspicuously omitted teachers from her list of stakeholders and strong education advocates. Who best knows how children learn and what they should be taught than we teachers with years of experience under our belts and more knowledge of what works in a classroom than the non-educators who dictate what we teach?  Who spends more hours per day with the students than their own parents?  


As a proud member of the only profession I know that does not govern itself, I challenge the plan created by the SRC to improve our city schools, once again dictated by non-educators who profess to know what teachers “should” teach and how they should do it under the misguided notion that anyone who attended school qualifies as an educational expert.  


We had hoped that the appointment of former educator Dr. Arlene Ackerman as the new superintendent would finally shift the school district’s management from the big business sector, so far removed from education to be effective at all, to someone who sees things from an educator’s point of view, knows where the real problems lie and is not afraid to hold all the stakeholders accountable. Sadly, this has not been the case. Since Dr. Ackerman came on board, we’ve seen the same old teacher bashing that we had before.  To coin a hackneyed, yet appropriate phrase, “That’s not change; that’s more of the same.”


Dr. Ackerman professes to be supportive of teachers, but her core beliefs fall short. In her agenda to increase adult accountability for the academic success of our children, she, like the others, has absolved parents and the students themselves of any responsibility and accountability in the equation. Education begins at home, and although it seems to be politically incorrect to say this, it needs to be said. Parents, teachers and students must all share an equal role in the academic success of our children. High school students, particularly, are responsible for their own actions and decisions that affect their academic success, but this is deliberately left out of the accountability equation.


It is far easier to “blame the teachers” for what is wrong with education than to admit that parents and students must also be called to task for the lack of academic success and that there are consequences when their responsibilities are not met. Although it is a hard lesson to learn, some students must learn the hard way that lack of work results in failure, both in school and in the working world.  To place the burden and blame on teachers alone is unfair and unrealistic. That’s not change; that’s more of the same.


As we begin a new school year under the leadership of Dr. Ackerman, city schools are fraught with unaddressed problems. Although the PFT has graciously consented to extend the old contract while supposed good-faith negotiations continue, some school administrators have taken this as a golden opportunity to ignore the contract at will. Contract-breaking tactics cause low morale among dedicated, but unappreciated teachers who seem to have to fight to maintain what is legally theirs to begin with. The PFT contract is the only thing that protects teachers from administrative decisions that are too often self-serving and frequently not in the best interest of our students. The contract must be worded very carefully and for this reason, among many others, it is important that we have a long-term protection.


Now Dr. Ackerman and the SRC are pushing for a one year contract for teachers. A short-term contract does not provide teachers with any certainty or job security, and will encourage the younger, desperately needed teachers to look elsewhere for positions in which they will be better paid and treated with more respect. The 3% raise offered does not even reflect a cost-of living increase and is insulting, to say the least.  Dr. Ackerman herself said that Philadelphia teachers are grossly underpaid and that our teacher salaries must better align with teacher salaries across the state. She wants a longer school day, although there is little documentation to support that students who spend more hours per day in school receive a better education.


Conversely, a longer school day may actually be detrimental to the learning process, and there are statistics that support this. What’s interesting is that increasing the school day would have to include a substantial salary increase for the already overburdened teachers, but that offer is not on the bargaining table. So in essence teachers would be expected to work a longer school day, pay more out of pocket for (reduced) medical benefits and higher co-pays for doctor visits in exchange for a 3% raise. Will we go for it?  I think not.   A one year contract does not benefit teachers or students in the least; it only benefits the administration, buying them more time to try to get more out of teachers while offering them less in return.


Additionally, instead of a concerted effort to offer incentives to attract and retain qualified teachers in all subject areas, the SRC and Dr. Ackerman have narrow-mindedly devoted themselves to looking for African American teachers, supporting the (racist) notion that black students are better served by black teachers. When justifiably outraged teachers of all races in my school surveyed their students concerning this matter, students unanimously agreed that they want good teachers and don’t care what color they are. It is not a coincidence that this notion of black teachers for black students is being promoted by Dr. Ackerman and Ms. Dungee Glenn, who are both African-American. It is difficult to teach and work in an atmosphere where each day we are given the not-so-subtle message that teachers of color would do a better job than the rest of our colleagues.


I think Dr. Ackerman and Ms. Dungee-Glenn should read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who I dare say would not have supported their mission.


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.

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.