Council told that teaching is tough in Philly and getting tougher

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Philly councilwoman Helen Gym

Philadelphia needs to do a better job of recruiting and retaining teachers, a panel of educators and experts told City Council's education committee on Monday.

More than 6,000 Philadelphia students lack a permanent teacher, despite aggressive recruitment efforts, City Councilwoman Helen Gym said.

"We need to create a different culture for our teachers," Gym said.

Gym and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers say there are more than 600 oversize classes in the district and 117 teaching vacancies.

Philadelphia School District officials dispute the number of vacancies - they say there are 94 - and note that 99 percent of teaching jobs have been filled.

"People want to teach in Philadelphia," said Uri Monson, the district's chief financial officer. The district has hired more than 1,000 teachers this year, he said. "This is an incredible accomplishment for any business or school district of our size."

But it's not enough, PFT president Jerry Jordan said.

"We can no longer comfort ourselves with the notion that this year's number of vacancies is an improvement over last year," he said. "Because, quite frankly, our schoolchildren and parents deserve much better."

There are challenges, Monson acknowledged: among them, no PFT contract for three years, and no raise for teachers for four.

The school system recently made an offer worth roughly $100 million. It would have restored "steps," or adjustments for years of experience, but did not include retroactive pay or pay for advanced degrees.

The PFT rejected the offer and made a counterproposal that the district considers unacceptable.

"We need a better morale in our workforce," Monson said. "We should be a place where people want to come to work."

Educators told Council that teaching in Philadelphia is a calling, but it's tough and getting tougher.

Melissa Lawson, a district veteran who is now the school counselor at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, said that in her 14 years, "I've seen the School District of Philadelphia decimate the once-vibrant and robust educational system that we once knew, through budget cuts, massive layoffs, force transfers, school closures, charter school expansion, and facilities neglect."

The lack of a contract colors everything, but working conditions are also problematic, Lawson said.

"Administrators have a hard job trying to raise morale when they know that their teachers are coming to a school without the adequate resources needed to teach their class, such as paper, current-edition textbooks, and working technology," she said.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez agreed.

"I don't know how teachers show up every day," she said. "Unfortunately, in Philadelphia, not having enough resources is the new normal."

LeShawna Coleman, an ESL teacher who has taught in Philadelphia for 16 years, said teachers often lack a voice in city schools.

"We don't want to walk out on our students, but we feel powerless," Coleman said. "We are in situations where respect and support are lacking, but the expectations are enormous."

Sonya Brintnall, a speech-language therapist, said it was no wonder that the district is having a tough time recruiting personnel.

"Almost all teachers I know now work a second job and are tired," Brintnall said. "Almost all teachers I know now are considering another career - myself included."

kgraham@phillynews.com 215-854-5146 @newskag www.philly.com/schoolfiles

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