A Southwest Phila. school that runs on fumes

20150615-Mitchell-Elementary
Principal Cheryl Hackett (right) is in the hallway as police officer Donald Lewis (left) comforts a young student, at S. Weir Mitchell Elementary School June 9, 2015.

The principal was in midsentence when her cellphone alarm chirped, a jarringly cheerful reminder of what many city schools lack.

The alert meant it was time for Cheryl Hackett to summon one of her Mitchell Elementary students for a blood-sugar check. The seventh grader's numbers had been high, and the principal was worried, because this was one of the days the school had no nurse.

Four miles away, politicians in City Hall were discussing how much money the Philadelphia School District would get to cover an $85 million gap and begin to restore the cuts of the last several years.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had asked for $103 million in new recurring revenue, but Council would guarantee just $45 million and offer $25 million more with strings attached. Another fight awaits in Harrisburg, where Hite has asked for $200 million.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke has suggested that Hite was asking for a "Cadillac version" of a funding plan.

Do the schools get too much money?

Hackett shrugged.

She has been in the school system for 33 years, a principal for the last 11. She is retiring this summer. "We're just asking for enough to educate our kids properly," she said.

Her school, at 55th and Kingsessing in Southwest Philadelphia, is rich in out-of-date books. It has a dearth of after-school clubs, supports for struggling students, and adults to supervise the playground.

"These finances will make a lot of this go away," she said.

Hackett has spent the last two years at Mitchell, after moving in 2013 from Reynolds Elementary in North Philadelphia, one of 32 schools closed in the last several years by the district.

Mitchell has almost 700 students, all of whom live in poverty. Its students struggle academically; the school ranks low among its peers.

Mitchell began adding grades in 2013, and will grow to become a K-8 school in the fall. New students need new textbooks, but the ones given to Mitchell are all outdated.

There are shortcuts - printing out free materials online and using projectors to share them with students - but it's not the same as having up-to-date books, Hackett said.

"You need some current texts at some point," she said.

Another problem? Desks. The ones Hackett has are too small for adult-size eighth graders. She scavenged some from another district spot, but now she has to find money to pay movers to get the desks onto the third floor.

Teacher Chris Kline, the school's dean, has major concerns about Mitchell's technology, which does not match contemporary students' learning styles.

"In many classes, there's only one computer, and it's older than dirt," Kline said. "That's a problem."

Mitchell has been able to pay for a few smartboards, and they have made a difference. In one kindergarten class, two tiny girls confidently practiced writing number sentences, something they can do because they have access to the technology, the principal said.

Hackett hails her hardworking staff and resilient students for keeping the school moving.

"I love Mitchell because it's the best, and because we all read!" one student wrote in a composition hung on a hallway wall.

But the district's continuing financial crisis touches everything, the principal said.

Fewer aides to monitor the schoolyard and lunchroom mean that Hackett cannot feed children breakfast before school, so the meals are given to children in classrooms. The money crunch means less-frequent cleaning of classrooms, so food trash lingers. Now, there are mice and bugs. Hackett keeps pest killer in her office and is used to sweeping mouse droppings off her desk.

A career educator, the daughter of Philadelphia educators, Hackett feels lucky to have partners - Center City law firm Zarwin Baum, Wayne Presbyterian Church, the Southwest Philadelphia nonprofit CityLights - that pitch in with paper, library books and tutors. But she worries about the lack of help for special-needs students, the counselor's large and growing workload, and the message that weak funding sends to students.

"Sometimes, they just feel like second-class citizens, like they're not valued as human beings because they don't have what other kids have," she said. "We're still making it happen, but it's very emotionally challenging."

The lack of medical services is of particular concern to Hackett. On one hectic day this month, three student crises cropped up in short order on a day when the school had no nurse.

"Eight police officers showed up at Mitchell because I called 911 three times in 20 minutes," Hackett said. "People in the neighborhood are like, 'What's going on at that school?' "

Council is putting conditions on $25 million for schools in part because the district has proposed outsourcing school nurse services; system officials say they want to see if privatization will allow them to get more medical services into schools.

But that fight feels far away to Hackett and others on the front lines at Mitchell.

Kline, the dean, dreams of more technology, of more counselors for pupils in crisis, of more people to monitor the hallways. But he also thinks of the big picture - the teachers who spend thousands out of their own pocket to fill their classrooms, the ones who burn out and leave, the officials who he feels can't relate to what he sees every day.

"I don't think we're asking for too much money," he said.

Hite has directed principals to prepare two budgets for next year: one assuming the same level of resources as this year, and one assuming the extra funding from City Hall and Harrisburg comes through.

Hackett said she would hire another secretary and another counselor if the extra money came through.

It's not enough, she said, but it would be a start.

"As the demands get more and more, we need the funds more and more," she said. "They have to give us the opportunity to let these kids compete globally."


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