Phila. schools open amid a mixture of hope and looming layoffs

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Breanne Lucy, a first-year teacher in the Philadelphia schools, directs freshman students from the cafeteria to the auditorium to begin their first day at the new LINC school.

After a summer of financial and political turmoil for Philadelphia schools, 130,000 children returned to the classroom Monday to begin a school year that opened amid looming layoffs and the threat of severe budget cuts.

"This school year, like last school year, will be a challenge," Mayor Nutter told students at Learning in New Contexts, a new high school in North Philadelphia.

Nutter and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. visited the LINC, as it is known, and Swenson Arts and Technology High School, to mark the first day of the 2014-15 school year.

Even as the mayor and schools chief sampled school lunches and chatted with students about their favorite subjects, budget questions underscored everything. The district still faces an $81 million deficit.

What will he do if a crucial, controversial $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes does not pass by early October? Hite previously threatened to lay off more than 1,000 workers and swell some class sizes to 40.

"There is no Plan B," Hite said. "We're not going to put children in those types of environment."

Parents, advocates, and some elected officials marked the day with protests. For several hours, a small group set up shop outside Gov. Corbett's office on South Broad Street to read student letters to the governor.

The students had similar requests - they said they wanted full-time nurses, librarians, and art programs in their schools. Some were straight and to the point. Others were emotional and even harsh.

"I love art. . . . If you take it away it's like you are a criminal," read Stephanie Bissett's letter. "I will go around my neighborhood and tell people not to vote for you."

Hope Applegate wrote: "We need to have a nurse in our school every day because if we have a big cut who will take care of our cut?"

Brian Burney joined a group of protesters outside Benjamin Franklin High School, where he is a sophomore.

"Last year, we didn't have any supplies," Burney said. "We had to buy our own printer paper. We had to share literature books and algebra books. It was a lot of chaos. It's messed up."

Still, for many students and teachers, Monday was all about possibility.

"We're not talking about the budget," said Jason Vantoll, a sophomore at Swenson, a career and technical high school of 640 students in Northeast Philadelphia. "We're just excited."

Swenson principal Colette Langston said she was proud to show off her school to Nutter and Hite. Don't get her wrong, Langston said - the budget realities are harsh.

But her staff has pulled together to perform miracles, and Swenson has a few things that pass as luxuries these days, such as a full-time nurse and counselor and a retired administrator who volunteers a few days a week.

"If we need things - and we do - we pitch in and buy them," Langston said. "It can be tough, but you know what? The kids show up every day, and we make it work."

At the LINC, first-year teacher Breanne Lucy said the thrill of helping to create a new school overshadowed the budget uncertainty.

The LINC is one of three new district high schools opening on Monday. It, the U School, and Building 21 all emphasize project-based learning, technology, and student-driven curriculum.

"I know that people are really concerned about funding, but the energy here makes me far less concerned than I would be otherwise," said Lucy, an English and history teacher.

About 1,800 students applied for spots in the three new schools. Each opened with a freshman class of 115.

Hite told the LINC students he had high hopes for the work they would do.

"This represents the hope and the possibility of what high school can become here in Philadelphia," the superintendent said.

Bridgett Bailey-Fletcher beamed. Her daughter Kashae Bailey is a new LINC student, and Bailey-Fletcher said it feels like the family won the lottery.

"I think what we're seeing here is a lot of success," Bailey-Fletcher said. "This is a new school, and this is so miraculously awesome."

 


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Staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.