Saturday, May 30, 2015

Inside city schools, grim scenes

4:15 p.m.

Inside city schools, grim scenes

4:15 p.m.

Steve Flemming's third-grade classroom at the J.B. Kelly School hasn't been painted for 10 years. He has no bulletin boards. 

So he painted the room himself. And built a makeshift bulletin board. And then he rushed to a press conference called Thursday by State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) to talk about how rough things were last year, and how they could be worse this coming school year.

Hughes released a report Thursday illustrating conditions inside schools, and called on parents to report to the state problems they see this year.

"We do not see it getting better," Flemming said. "This is not quality education."

Along with a district student, parent, building engineer and others, Flemming cited major problems in city schools and pleaded with politicians to pass a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that would yield millions for the district.

They need it, said Miles Roberts, a rising ninth grader at Carver High School of Engineering and Science.

"The kids don't feel safe at school," said Miles, who graduated in June from Henry Elementary.

Miles' mom, Robin Roberts, is deeply worried about the education her three children are receiving. She cited a recent announcement aimed at getting all city children reading on grade level by fourth grade.

"I have no idea when we're going to get fourth graders reading on grade level when you have 40 kids in a class," Robin Roberts said.

MIles was lucky - he got into a good high school. Not all students were so lucky, she noted.

"The school district has decided that counseling services are expendable," Robin Roberts said, frustration evident in her voice.

Amy Laura Cahn, an official with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, noted that over 800 complaints were filed with the Department of Education last year. They were largely ignored, she said - some parents didn't even receive a response to their complaints.

Cahn said that PILCOP is exploring what options it might have for recourse.

Hughes said he wasn't sure that the cigarette tax would pass in time to meet the district's October deadline to stave off massive cuts. Election season makes many of his colleagues wary of passing any taxes, even if it's a Philadelphia-only tax the city desperately wants and needs.

He called legislators' behavior "despicable" and "deplorable."

"Is this really school?" Hughes asked.

EARLIER: It's another busy day on the Philadelphia School District front, with an SRC meeting planned for 5:30 p.m. Spoiler alert: I'm expecting a number of speakers to decry the district's acute financial crisis.

But first up: state Sen. Vincent Hughes is releasing a report with a birds-eye view of conditions inside city schools last year. It's no secret that budget cuts made things difficult at best in district schools, but Hughes compiled stories from folks on the ground - parents, teachers, principals, other staffers - to arrive at what is a sobering reminder of what schools looked like last year. That's important background, because things promise to be tougher this year, at least at first. 

In order to have enough cash to open schools on Sept. 8 as scheduled, Superintendent WIlliam R. Hite Jr. has ordered a series of temporary budget cuts. Schools will be cleaned less frequently; 7,500 district, charter and private school students will lose their bus rides to school; there will be fewer school police officers to keep order at schools; there will be less professional development for teachers in the district's most struggling schools; there will be less money to fix the district's aging buildings; and so on. Those losses will be restored if state lawmakers pass the crucial-to-Philadelphia cigarette tax by October, but that's a big if.

Hughes' report details "a major magnet school" where the entire sophomore class could not take gym because there simply weren't enough teachers. Parents at one elementary school told Hughes "no safe walk volunteers or crossing guards for dangerous intersections." A first-year special education teacher at one school told of having no classroom support - no aides, or one-on-one assistants for students, and no assistant principal at the school to help. A principal reported trash pickup only happened once a week, leading to "unsanitary conditions." Principals talked about disciplinary issues resulting from a lack of support staff, and about the tasks they were forced to pick up because of cuts elsewhere - hallway monitor, lunchroom monitor, SEPTA TransPass distributor, nurse,  disciplinarian. There was no dance teacher at Kensington CAPA, an arts school, so the dance class was "taught" by students and supervised by a paraprofessional. They talked about some classes with more than 40 students. 

There were building problems, too. Custodial staff reported the HVAC system at a comprehensive high school failing, "with no way of controlling the amount of cold, warm or fresh air that enters the building." One middle school that badly needs painting never got it, so staff painted the school themslves, using supplies they bought themselves. Mold problems have caused a building in West Philadelphia to close for an entire year, "with no plans to fix the problem."

Hughes' report also highlighted the district-wide pain: more than half of schools lack a full-time counselor, no assistant principals in schools with fewer than 850 students, and more. Hughes used the report to renew his call for a speedy passage of the cigarette tax. He also urged parents, teachers and others to file complaints with the state Department of Education when they see problems arise this coming school year.

Hughes has a press conference planned for 3 p.m. outside Benjamin Franklin High School, and the SRC meeting begins at 5:30. I'll be livetweeting both. Follow along here, or on Twitter.

 

About this blog

Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham writes the Philly School Files blog, where she covers education in Philadelphia, both in and out of the classroom.

During the school year, you’ll frequently find her hosting live chats about the district on Philly.com.

Please do pass along the scoop about what’s going on at your Philadelphia public school; Kristen welcomes tips, story ideas and witty banter.


Kristen Graham Inquirer Staff Writer
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