Saturday, April 25, 2015

Schools set to open with bigger classes, smaller staff

In this Aug. 29, 2013 photo, students walk the halls during an open house for incoming freshman and transfer students at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The severity of layoffs and school closings in the Philadelphia School District have made this latest financial crunch unlike any other in recent memory as students get ready to go back to school. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
In this Aug. 29, 2013 photo, students walk the halls during an open house for incoming freshman and transfer students at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The severity of layoffs and school closings in the Philadelphia School District have made this latest financial crunch unlike any other in recent memory as students get ready to go back to school. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

After a summer of angst and uncertainty, the Philadelphia School District is opening 212 schools Monday. It promises to be a first day like no other.

Because of the district's financial crisis, 134,000 students will return to buildings with larger classes and fewer teachers, counselors, administrators and aides. Supplies, even paper, may be scarce. As Linda Carroll, principal of Northeast High School, the district's biggest school, put it last week: "I don't have what I need."

In addition, 9,000 students displaced by the closing of 24 schools in June will start classes in new settings, the largest closure-related upheaval in district history.

A community coalition that has prayed "for our children" outside Germantown High each first day of class for eight years is praying again at 7 a.m. Monday, but at a new location - Germantown was one of the schools that closed.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. says conditions will not be ideal. But thanks to intensive planning over the summer and the work of principals, teachers, and staff he observed on 24 recent school visits, he said, he is confident that schools are ready and that he looks forward to a smooth opening.

"There is," he said, "an excitement associated with the first day of school."

Still, Rosemarie F. Hatcher, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, the umbrella organization for school groups, said parents worry about what their children will encounter Monday.

"They're afraid there won't be enough staff and not enough materials," she said. "And their biggest concern is the safety aspect for the children at schools that have been merged."

Hatcher is urging parents to volunteer at schools if they can. "They don't feel the schools are ready to open," she said of parents.

But Hite says the schools are ready - now that 1,649 of the 3,783 employees laid off in June have been recalled.

After a summer in which some schools were so shorthanded that principals answered the phones or asked parents to volunteer, each school has at least one secretary, and more than 1,100 part-time aides are returning to monitor lunchrooms, hallways, and recess.

But only 116 of 283 counselors who were laid off have returned. As a result, many schools no longer have a counselor of their own. Hite said the district had established a pool of 16 roving counselors to assist several schools and to work with special-education students, such as those with autism or physical disabilities, who have individual learning plans.

Hite said the district focused all summer on safety concerns, working with the city, police, SEPTA, and community groups on extra measures to ensure that the 9,000 students shifted to schools outside their neighborhoods travel back and forth without incident.

Working with trained volunteers, Town Watch Integrated Services is coordinating the WalkSafePHL "safe corridors" program, under which adults in distinctive vests will monitor assigned routes at the start and the end of the school day.

SEPTA, too, is working closely with the district "to make things as easy and simple as possible" for commuting students. "We're very optimistic," spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.

The transit authority recently launched an online school-trip planner to help students plot routes. Williams said the site had garnered more than 2,000 page views.

Apart from student safety, concerns about school staffing levels abound.

"I'm hearing from some teachers - it's bare bones," said Judy Haughton, who was one of 127 assistant principals laid off in June and who has not been recalled.

Haughton says she expects schools "will have trouble functioning at any kind of effective capacity at the [current] level of staffing. I'm sure it frightens a lot of people. It frightens me."

Carroll, principal of Northeast, is bracing for more than 3,000 students with a dramatically reduced staff.

Her school will have one counselor, down from eight last year, three assistant principals instead of five, and three secretaries, not seven.

Northeast will have 11 support staffers instead of 22, and those aides will work only half as many hours as last year. "I'm losing my mind," Carroll said.

 


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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