District Cuts 676 Teachers, Despite 1,500 Teacher Vacancies

by Ray Guzman and Christopher Paslay

According to the Philadelphia School District’s Teacher Vacancy List, the district is seeking 1,540 teachers for the 2013-14 school year. 

The Philadelphia School District, according to its website, has 1,540 teacher vacancies for the 2013-14 school year.  Of the 376 schools that currently need teachers, 47 are high schools (485 vacancies); 6 are alternative schools (28 vacancies); 15 are middle schools (89 vacancies); and 308 are elementary schools (938 vacancies).

The revelation that the School District is seeking over 1,500 teachers for next fall is shocking but nonetheless true, at least according their website.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, is seeking no less than 33 teachers for next school year: 6 social studies, 4 English, 4 ESOL, 4 math, 3 biology, 2 chemistry, 2 art, 1 Spanish, 1 music, 1 learning support math, 1 bilingual math, 1 learning support English, 1 life skills support, 1 culinary arts, and 1 business information computer technology.

South Philadelphia High School needs 34 teachers.  Edison High School needs 78.  Strawberry Mansion needs 36.  Northeast and Washington high schools need 22 and 14 teachers, respectively.

And on and on it goes.

Although the School District has not released any official numbers, these vacancies are most likely the result of teachers either retiring or quitting over budget concerns and the bleak outlook for the 2013-14 school year (well done, Boston Consulting Group).  How has the School District responded to what appears to be a massive teacher shortage for the 2013-14 school year?

By laying-off 676 teachers.

It’s true.  Last week, 676 teachers received pinks slips terminating them as employees of the Philadelphia School District as of July 1st.  This means they will no longer receive health insurance and must file for unemployment.

The Philadelphia School District’s plans for the coming school year—from school closings to the recent layoffs of 3,700 staff—are fishy, to say the least.  Much of it fails to pass the smell test.  The savings achieved on the shuttering of 23 schools and the merge or relocation of five others has been hotly debated.  So has the preposterous idea that schools will be able to run without counselors, nurses, vice principals, secretaries, hall monitors, or learning support staff.

It’s become quite clear that the Philadelphia School District and School Reform Commission are posturing—playing “doomsday” games in front of city and state politicians to squeeze more money from taxpayers and most importantly, to box the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers into a corner in an attempt to get over $100 million in labor concessions from them; the School District hopes to manipulate the PFT the way they did SEIU 32BJ Local 1201.

These “doomsday” games are flat out dangerous.  Although the School District does have legitimate financial problems and money is genuinely scarce (due in large part to the fraud, waste, and abuse of the Ackerman administration), the laying off of nearly 20 percent of its staff, especially 676 teachers, may come back to bite them.

It’s apparent by the employment opportunities on their own website that come September 1st, the School District will need to fill 1,500 teacher vacancies simply to make the schools run.  And when you do the math—when you bring back the 676 teachers who were laid off and subtract them from the 1,500 plus teachers needed—this comes to a massive shortage of over 800 teachers.  This, of course, doesn’t factor in the vacancies created by teachers who quit or retire at the end of the summer.

Why did the School District cut 676 teachers to begin with?  Political posturing, as I’ve mentioned above.  The SRC wants to put the squeeze on the PFT, Mayor Nutter, and Governor Corbett.  They are also doing it to save money—two month’s worth of health insurance premiums, to be exact.

Seniority is also an issue.  Creating all these vacancies gives principals more power to hire their own staff.

A closer look at the teacher vacancy list reveals something else: the School District is full of bologna when it claims it will end all of its art and music programs.  If they were truly cutting all art and music (and not just putting on a grand show for all the city and state to see), why in the world would there exist vacancies on the School District website calling for various art and music teachers?

Currently, there are 78 music teacher positions, and over 100 art-related positions, posted on the website.

Come September, after the Philadelphia School District is done trying to consume itself to save a little money, and after they have finished successfully tap-dancing for tens of millions of dollars in cash from city and state legislators (and, surprise, surprise, find extra money in their coffers), much of its programs will be restored; the School District can only violate state laws for so long.

The kicker, of course, will be finding a way to deal with the massive teacher shortage they have created.

Violent Students Coming to a School Near You

by Christopher Paslay

Alternative schools like HOPE Charter should be expanded, not closed. 

Attention parents, teachers, and students of the Philadelphia School District.  Come next September, with the closing of HOPE Charter School, dozens of violent students with behavior problems may be coming to a school near you.

These students aren’t just violent and dangerous.  They’re transient and unstable, and have a history of jumping around from high school-to-high school; they have lengthy suspension records; they have major attendance problems; and over three-quarters of them live with either one parent or no parent at all.

HOPE Charter School used to serve these high needs students, before the SRC swooped in and slotted HOPE for closure this June.  According to a HOPE Charter School Executive Summary dated March 16, 2012:

For 10 years, HOPE Charter School has served Philadelphia’s most challenged teens and their families—providing a school model unique to the City, with an equal emphasis on academic re-engagement and social-emotional stabilization. Since implementing significant leadership changes in 2008, HOPE has become a supportive and effective “last resort” for many Philadelphia students.

Since HOPE is closing, this “last resort” may now take place in a school near you.

Here is the population of students HOPE Charter currently serves by the numbers:

  • Over 1/3 of HOPE’s 250 plus students have IEPs, 3rd highest of all Philadelphia’s public or charter schools
  • More than 2/3 of HOPE students transfer into the school from other high schools
  • At least 50% of students were disciplined in previous schools for violent/dangerous behavior
  • 57% of HOPE students were suspended 3 or more days prior to coming to HOPE
  • Over 50% of students had major absence problems (20+ days/year) prior to attending HOPE
  • Only 16% of HOPE students live in a two-parent home, 23% live with neither parent

And HOPE is now closing.  This is something for parents to think about.  Come September (because HOPE’s low PSSA scores prompted the SRC not to renew its charter), a dangerous, emotionally disturbed and/or adjudicated youth could be sitting in a desk right next to your son or daughter.  Your child could be: 1—physically attacked; 2—influenced to skip school or engage in other self destructive behaviors; or 3—have his or her education robbed from them on a daily basis.

This is something for teachers to think about as well.  This fall, because the SRC doesn’t see the value in alternative schools like HOPE Charter (and because they don’t understand that an alternative environment is the best placement for wayward children regardless of the outcome of math and reading scores), you could be: 1—forced to spend a disproportionate amount of your energy and classroom resources addressing new behavior problems; 2—have the integrity of your classroom environment totally compromised; or 3—have your morale completely destroyed.

Not that these kids don’t have the right to an education.  HOPE’s student body is compromised of some of Philadelphia’s neediest students.  According to Andrew D. Sparks, a member of the HOPE Charter School board of directors:

HOPE Charter School was founded by administrators from JJC Family Services, a nonprofit agency with the mission to provide family/foster placements, care, and support to severely neglected, abused, abandoned or seriously delinquent children. The founders started a charter school in 2002 after seeing the unmet needs of the children and adolescents that JJC was serving. The school’s mission was, and still is, to “meet the unique needs of students who are not currently succeeding in their conventional school, may not be attending school, or attending sporadically, and/or may be in danger of leaving school prior to their graduation.” The goal was to provide these students with a safe and caring environment and an array of emotional, academic, and social supports.

Not anymore.  Because these troubled youth struggle on math and reading tests, the SRC just assumed that these kids would be better served in traditional schools around the city.  This backward thinking, of course, is not only unfair to HOPE’s most troubled youth in need of specialized assistance, but to our regular population of students who will undoubtedly have their educations once again compromised at the hands of the wayward few.

The SRC and the District’s Charter School Office needs to reconsider closing HOPE Charter school.  On the contrary, alternative schools like HOPE should be invested in and expanded, not shut down.

U.S. Department of Education Pulls the Race Card on Itself

by Christopher Paslay

For Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education, using racism as a tool to forward agendas proves to be a double-edged sword. 

Early in 2009, Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education, under the direction of President Obama, enacted a reform plan for America’s public schools nicknamed the “National Reform Model.”  The model, which in large part called for failing schools to be shut down and overhauled with new teachers and principals or reconstituted as charters, was the catalyst for the recent reform of public schools within Philadelphia.

Four years later, the School Reform Commission has decided to close 37 schools in the city, many of which are in disrepair and running at less than half capacity.  Ironically, now that the school closures have been set in motion, it’s the U.S. Department of Education that is crying foul.   

According to a January 29th Inquirer article headlined “Activists gear up against planned Philadelphia school closing”:

[Activists] will announce that the district is now the subject of a federal civil rights investigation into the racial patterns of its 2012 closings.  In a recent letter The Inquirer obtained, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed to the activist group Action United it would investigate its claim that the “district adopted a school closing and consolidation plan . . . that has a disparate, adverse impact on African American and Hispanic students, and on students with disabilities.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is fond of saying that “education is the civil rights issue of our time,” and that we must act now to reform our failing public schools—many of which serve African American and Hispanic students.  Interestingly, when school districts such as Philadelphia go ahead with the reform model Duncan has been pushing for the last four years—moving to close or overhaul those failing schools that happen to service mostly African American and Hispanic students—the U.S. Department of Education conducts an investigation over a possible civil rights violation because the closures disproportionally affect minorities.

It’s racial discrimination if you do, and it’s racial discrimination if you don’t. 

Such behavior reminds me of the 1977 Dr. Pepper commercial “I’m a Pepper,” except in this case it would be called “I’m a Racist”:        

I pull the race card and I’m proud

I use to feel alone in the crowd

But now you look around these days

And it seems there’s a race card craze

I’m a racist he’s a racist she’s a racist we’re a racist

Wouldn’t you like to be a racist too? 

Even the Philadelphia left-leaning media agrees that this race card pulling has spun out of control.  In an editorial headlined “By the Numbers: Closing schools is painful, but it’s not discrimination,” the Philadelphia Daily News argues that blaming the city’s public school closings on discrimination is absurd:

It’s hard to wrap our mind around the concept of a black mayor, a black superintendent and a School Reform Commission headed by a Latino public-school graduate conspiring to commit acts of racial discrimination. It’s harder still for opponents to face the reality of the closings.  It’s not discrimination, but powerful demographic forces that are at work.

Powerful forces such as the violent culture of certain neighborhoods, the breakdown of community and family, and the lack of parental involvement, perhaps? 

Tragically, race and racism are too often exploited and used as a tool for advancing agendas.  Beth Pulcinella, a teaching artist and activist working at the Attic Youth Center, wrote a commentary last fall for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook called “What I learned about successful organizing from Chicago teachers’ strike leaders”:     

I have been following the situation in Chicago with keen interest for a couple of years now, since members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won enough union elections to gain control of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. But how was the union able to organize such a massive and publicly supported strike?

Pulcinella named several reasons CORE was successful, one of them being:

Members of CORE have not been afraid to discuss the ways that race and racism have created an educational apartheid in this country, a place where the term achievement gap is code for the gap between white students and students of color.

In other words, CORE wasn’t afraid to pull the race card to forward their agenda. 

Education activists and civil rights groups seem to be taking a page out of CORE’s playbook.  Some have gone as far as to call Obama’s education agenda, which has been blamed for school closings in major cities all across the country, racist.  The Huffington Post writes in an article headlined “School Closures Violate Civil Rights, Protestors Tell Arne Duncan”:

The standards-based education reform movement calls school change “the civil rights issue of our time.” But about 220 mostly African American community organizers, parents and students from 21 cities from New York to Oakland, Calif., converged on Washington Tuesday to tell U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan he’s getting it backwards on school closures.

Members of the group, a patchwork of community organizations called the Journey for Justice Movement, have filed several Title VI civil rights complaints with the Education Department Office of Civil Rights, claiming that school districts that shut schools are hurting minority students. While most school closures are decided locally, the Education Department’s School Improvement Grant gives underperforming school districts money for shakeups or turnarounds, including closures.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education, which wanted to end “discrimination” in public schools in part by pulling the race card, is forced to investigate itself because someone on the outside has pulled the race card on them.  

Us race card pullers are an interesting breed

To control the resources is what we need

Ask any race hustler and they’ll say

We’re the true racists for acting this way

I’m a racist he’s a racist she’s a racist we’re a racist

Wouldn’t you like to be a racist too?

The 37 school closings recommended by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission may or may not be justified; this is still a matter of public debate.  As Timothy Boyle rightly talks about in his recent commentary in the Notebook, the public still doesn’t have enough information to okay the SRC’s decision to shut down three dozen public schools; more detailed explanations are necessary. 

This, however, doesn’t justify pulling the race card, which cheapens true complaints about legitimate discrimination, and makes us all look like we’re simply crying wolf.

Children of the Night

by Rainiel Guzmán

These ‘advocates’ propose that teachers should curb both detentions and suspensions and rather inquire as to the whys ‘some’ students have boundary issues, poor study habits and exhibit ‘oppositional behavior’. They should share one of my commutes, which would answer many of their whys.”

As the school year approaches in the twilight of another violent summer in Philadelphia, we are greeted by recommendations which seek to address climate at our schools. Key among these recommendations is the cessation of detentions and suspensions for previous infractions such as tardiness, or the use of profanity and cell phones. Teachers know what will follow, chaos. Precious time will now be “mandated” to address non-instructional matters. It is clear that the proponents of these recommendations do not work or often visit many of our schools. In fact, I am certain that many “advocates” of children in our city must have very different commutes than mine. Their commutes must be through pastoral promenades or perhaps through singing hills. These “advocates” propose that teachers should curb both detentions and suspensions and rather inquire as to the whys “some” students have boundary issues, poor study habits and exhibit “oppositional behavior”. They should share one of my commutes, which would answer many of their whys. Allow me to share with you one of my commutes in particular.

I have been an adjunct at a local college for the past two years. The experience has been one of amazement and genuine satisfaction. The campus is located in a northern Philadelphia barrio. The student population is mostly comprised of working, single, Hispanic mothers. I declare my admiration for their tenacity and efforts. As you may expect a class comprised by mothers is regularly peppered with text-messages, emails and/or phone calls from children of all ages as well as by significant others. During our ten minute break, these mothers are on their cell phones restating orders, assessing chores and, yes, if need be refreshing threats. Once class resumes, the strains from a long day are visible, with the added responsibility of two additional hours of content remaining. At the end of our four hour class, generally concluding shy of ten o’clock p.m., everyone heads home. Likewise, I gather my materials and walk to the parking lot.

As you leave the building the grittiness of this barrio quickly takes over your senses. One detail stands out immediately–there isn’t a tree in sight. Meanwhile, competing songs from speeding cars race by and die out up and down the street. The sidewalks are poorly lit by the streetlights and a heightened self-awareness kicks in as a compensatory instinct. Yet, for the residents of el barrio, all is well. Old and young are out in the street holding congenial conversations and conducting all manner of affairs. As I pull out of the parking lot, I have developed the art of evading children. These children usually ride their bicycles in groups of three or four, down the middle of the street. By children, I mean on average boys ages eight to twelve. In case you are entertaining the idea that this must be a summer affair, unfortunately the answer is no. These children ride their bicycles in the middle of the streets year round, weather permitting.

I have raised the issue with my students and have asked for their opinions regarding these night boys. They generally are very candid. Perhaps, the most succinct opinion gravitates around a well worn phrase, those kids are raising themselves. Once that phrase is uttered out loud a shared silence follows. The silence is then broken by open affirmations  of violence directed to their own children, especially directed to the boys: ¡Yo lo mato! (I’ll kill him.) ¡Ay, si yo lo agarro montando bicicleta a estas horas! (Oh, if I find him riding a bike at this late hour!)Their “professed” anger quickly gives way to mother’s worry. As we proceed with the content, quick, under the table texts are sent. Corresponding mothers’ smiles confirm that all is well.

Once on the road I have become equally adept at turning corners. Night jaywalkers of all ages compete with the cycling muchachos de la noche in open disregard even contempt for cars and buses. This commute home is unlike any I have ever had. Still, other night children await my passage home.

My commute leads me through several northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods. As I follow my personal North Star, both girls and boys of all ages are out and about in small groups. By now it is well past ten o’clock. It is often impossible to discern any adults supervising them. Again, in case you are entertaining the idea that this must be a summer affair, unfortunately the answer is no. These children are on the corners and in the middle of the streets year round, weather permitting. As I near the last minutes of my commute into my well lit, verdant and night-childless streets, a string of Chinese corner restaurants attracts my attention. Indifferently of the day of the week or season, these restaurants are full with children and teenagers buying and eating late dinners. They often eat on the stairs, given that these restaurants do not offer seating. There are a few adults present, but my passing glances cannot confirm their relationship to the children. As I approach the unmarked “borders” of the barrios, hoods and neighborhoods, which weave our city, the smiles of these children challenge my thoughts.  I’m consumed by questions, and perplexed by their laughter.

I begin to indulge in self-righteous commentary to myself; Where are the parents of these kids? Why do we have a city wide curfew in the first place? Doesn’t anybody care? My morning commute to school is free of questions, jay-walkers, and young boys on bicycles. The Chinese restaurants are closed and the hectic morning rush of pedestrians do not allow for congenial conversations.

I truly wish that more “advocates” would commute at night. In doing so, they would have to answer not only the “whys” but to their current austerity machinations. Machinations, which seek to cynically redirect assured, non-instructional conflicts onto the charge of teachers. Please note that austerity in certain business circles is a code word for the stripping of assets, i.e. not having to pay for school nurses.

The hypocrisy spewed by these change agents is toxic. They are well aware of the conflicts which have and will continue to follow the gutting of nurses, counselors and behavioral scientists from many district schools. To their Machiavellian credit, they astutely enable some well intentioned but politically uninitiated “advocates” who instead of demanding the immediate reinstatement of non-teaching professionals, essential to any well run school, add their efforts to these cynical pursuits. I and many more resent the continued characterization of teachers as the enemies of our students and by association of responsible parents. Teachers are often, too often, the only constant adult presence in many of our students’ lives. I am not a psychologist, nor am charged to perform as one, thank God. Still, I will offer my very pedestrian diagnosis regarding the referred “whys”: children cannot parent themselves and teachers cannot be mandated to be surrogate parents or psychologists. God help us all, especially the children of the night.

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.


Was Philadelphia’s Superintendent Search a Dog and Pony Show?

by Lisa Haver

The SRC still lacks transparency, and should be replaced with a locally elected school board.      

When it comes to transparency, the School Reform Commission is still not making the grade.  

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett, in a recent School Reform Commission meeting, declared that principals are “the most important people” in the Philadelphia School District.  PSD administrators have also argued that having a good teacher is the most important factor in a child’s success in school.  Baffling, then, that the SRC commissioners made a deliberate decision to exclude teachers and principals from the Superintendent Selection Committee.

It seems clear now that the nine community meetings held last winter by the SRC were designed to present the illusion that the public actually had anything to say about this important decision. The agenda for these meetings allotted almost 90 minutes for participants to talk to each other in small groups but no time to ask questions of the Selection Committee members present.  At the first meeting, held at Simon Gratz High School, I asked that we have time to question the Selection Committee.  Commissioner Pritchett refused to allow any deviation from the agenda, even after I pointed out that it was a public meeting and that the public should have some say in how the meeting was run.

Reading the recently released Penn Praxis report on these community meetings clearly shows that one qualification was non-negotiable: the new superintendent had to be an educator.  “Schools are not a business” was a common refrain.  If the SRC were truly listening to the community, how could they have possibly justified the nomination of Pedro Martinez?   Mr. Martinez had never taught a day in his life.  His training was in Accounting.  He had no degree in Education and had never been a teacher or a principal.  Why would the SRC have nominated someone who never held what they insisted were the two most important jobs in education? 

William Hite, Jr., the second of only two applicants from a pool of one hundred the public was allowed to meet, was clearly more qualified and ultimately given the position.  His extensive experience in education and his ability to thoughtfully and intelligently answer questions made him the obvious choice.  However, with so little time given to the public to research and assess the nominees, concerns remained about Dr. Hite’s degree from the Broad Superintendents Academy.  Broad graduates, including former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, are schooled in the virtues of vouchers, privatization, union-busting and corporate control of schools; Pedro Martinez is also a graduate of the Broad Academy. 

The SRC continues its clear pattern of making crucial decisions behind closed doors while simultaneously characterizing itself as “transparent”.  Seven months after voting to obey the mandates of the Gates Compact and promising to have more public dialogue about its ramifications, the SRC has yet to place the issue on its agenda. Five months after promising to place resolutions back on its agenda BEFORE, not AFTER being voted on, the SRC fails to keep that simple promise.  

This is what transparency looks like?  How and why did the SRC choose Martinez and Hite over the other 90 plus applicants?  The SRC’s recent surprise announcement of Martinez and Hite as the two finalists for superintendent—and their quick two day public meet-and-greet—was downright insulting to those who cared enough to come out on those cold nights last winter.   Many of those participants have come to the sad realization that what they had to say ultimately meant very little.

These eleven long and frustrating years since the state took over the Philadelphia School District have taken their toll. 

There are several reasons why a growing number of Philadelphians are calling for the dissolution of the SRC:  its legacy of pandering to business interests while turning its back on students, parents, and teachers; its impotence in dealing with incompetent and ultimately destructive administrators such as Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman; its failure to take action as the district’s own mismanagement resulted in a deficit of historic proportions.

The time is long past for us to take back our schools from a state government which is openly hostile to the people of Philadelphia. We must take action before the Governor declares the district insolvent as a rationale for taking complete control and breaking the contracts of workers which were negotiated in good faith. It is time to reinstate the Philadelphia School Board, and to make it an elected body.  We deserve the right, as every other Pennsylvanian does, to choose those who will manage our schools. 

We teach our students that we live in a democracy.  Philadelphia students, parents and teachers can no longer be denied the right to decide what is best for the people of our city.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher, education activist and writer.  Contact her at lhaver1039@yahoo.com.