Philly's imperiled schools: The view from Central's robotics team

Daniel Ueda, Central High School

Last month, I shared an open letter from Daniel Ueda, a physics teacher at Philadelphia's prestigious Central High School best-known as coach of the school's award-winning robotics team, the RoboLancers. (If you're interested, watch the video here of Ueda's accepting Geekadelphia's "Geek of the Year" at the Academy of Natural Sciences, or view's story and photo gallery.)

Today, Ueda asked to share something else: a platform put forward by his robotics team, giving their perspective on the Philadelphia School District's financial crisis and calling on others to join their campaign. It's essentially a petition - if you agree and want to lend your support, you can sign up after reading it.

Ueda told Geekadelphia that he teaches and coaches for "purely selfish reasons," but there's abundant evidence to belie that - starting with the fact that he still teaches in Philadelphia when he could make a lot more money elsewhere. It never ceases to amaze me how market-worshiping conservatives are willing to ignore that consequence of basic economics when they dismiss the significance of school-funding disparities: Since most teachers can't afford perpetual altruism, wealthier districts will get most of the best teachers, and students in places like Philly will be perpetually shortchanged.  Last year, the Education Law Center's National Report Card on school-funding fairness again gave Pennsylvania a "D" for how it distributes school funds - an embarrassing contrast with New Jersey's "A," and a travesty for students in underfinanced districts without other options.

The RoboLancers' petition addresses that disparity after laying out some specific effects on Central and other Philly schools from what it calls "extreme austerity measures":

  • Oversized classrooms with as many as 47 students per class;
  • A lack of guidance counselors, nurses, non-teaching assistants, librarians, assistant principals, school operations officers, and secretaries;
  • Effective and beloved teachers being laid off;
  • Teachers being forced to teach outside of their appointed area;
  • Support staff (deans, department chairs, activity sponsors) being forced to teach full course loads, eliminating their only form of compensation and their ability to complete their duties;
  • Classes being held in auditoriums;
  • The elimination of the mentally gifted program;
  • Insufficient textbooks at the start of the year;
  • A closed and therefore inaccessible library; and
  • The ending of many programs exclusive to Central High School, including the advanced research program and the incredibly popular shadow program.

What do the RoboLancers propose? Their petition first centers on policies that matter particularly to those concerned with STEM education and extracurriculars:

The following immediate steps must be taken in the contract negotiation process with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers:

1. The extension of the school day must occur only if complete freedom is given to teachers and students to participate in extracurricular activities during that extended time;

2. STEM robotics funding must be reinstated by the SDP, including support for competitions, training for students and coaches, late night transpasses for students similar to that which is provided to members of sports teams, and weekend building access;

3. The incorporation of the benefits of project-based learning activities in any new teacher evaluation system, especially where it affects student achievement that is not measurable on a standardized exam; and

4. The accommodation and compensation for robotics coaches, including free use of preparation periods and extracurricular pay commensurate with athletics’ coaches.

But the RoboLancers also go long in their recommendations, including thoughtful calls for reforms to the state's school-funding and tax systems. As they point out, disparities in resources mean that "many suburbs surrounding Philadelphia spend between 150 percent and 200 percent more per pupil" than Philadelphia schools.

Among their specifics: a proposal for a tax on Marcellus Shale natural-gas production, "using the revenue to invest in education."

If I were them, I'd also add a call for a state constitutional amendment, modeled on the New Jersey Supreme Court's interpretation of its constitutional requirement for a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.

Remember the old line about a rich person who "was born on third base and thinks he hit a home run"?  If the city and state can't figure out a way to ensure equitable funding for Philadelphia schools - including the extra support needed when so many kids come from poor families - we'll continue to be a place where vast numbers of kids barely even get a chance to bat.  And everybody will be impoverished as a result.