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article imageOp-Ed: Public reactions to the Philadelphia education crisis Special

By Jay McClung     Sep 19, 2013 in Lifestyle
Philadelphia - “Philadelphia is dealing with a major crisis in public education. The children in Philadelphia deserve better. The focus should be on closing the achievement gap, not closing schools.”
Those were the words of Dominique Sharpton, President of the Education for a Better America Board of Directors, and Ms. Sharpton speaks the truth. Students went back to school on September 9 in the City of Brotherly Love, but there’s no evidence of that from the government officials in the state of Pennsylvania, including Governor Tom Corbett. On September 2, I published an article that discussed the reason(s) why Philadelphia public schools will close their doors within two years. People across the United States shared their opinions on the story and the Philadelphia crisis. With school officially in session, I felt it was a good time to talk with someone in the trenches in Philadelphia while gathering public opinion from across the country.
In the previous article, I mentioned that Governor Tom Corbett is adding fuel to this fire. Prior to publishing the article, I did become aware that this disastrous situation is not just Corbett’s fault. The state has been running the School District of Philadelphia since 2001. There are other people, governors and superintendents, who fertilized this soil and share the blame with Corbett. However, it is the current governor, who has made drastic budgetary cuts to education, has pushed for more charter schools, and supported the implementation of the Doomsday Budget. No, Governor Corbett is not the only player in this game but he is the one who changed the rules. If Corbett’s education decisions bother you, then speculation of Corbett getting reelected in 2014 will probably give you nightmares. A recent article by Ed Uravic suggests that the Pittsburgh native and one-time 9th grade history teacher could be reelected despite statewide criticism towards the Governor.
As outsiders looking in, we can only shake our heads in disbelief and debate how this was allowed to spiral out-of-control. My interview with Helen Gym, a Philadelphia public school parent and the founder of Parents United for Public Education, provides us with a glimpse into the Philadelphia public schools after the first week into the crisis.
What is the mood of the teachers and staff now that school has started and they know a tough year lies ahead?
“I think many people are just in shock at the level of deprivation we're seeing in schools. This week it has begun to sink in that there's just no bottom to what the state-controlled district is allowing to happen - class sizes in the upper 30s through the 50s, no full time guidance counselors in the majority of our schools, one nurse to every 1500 students, completely insufficient administrative and support staff. It's intolerable and frankly dangerous to have so few staff.”
I’ve read that class sizes in elementary schools are up to 34 children. How common is this and what are teachers doing to adjust to larger classes so that every student can be successful?
“My son's 9th grade biology class was 60 students on his first day and he's got a standard 41 students in algebra. We've got reports all over the district about a lack of desks and even chairs. This isn't some school district in the early 20th century. This is Philadelphia in 2013. There is no reasonable, rational or pedagogical adjustment to these numbers. This is the reason we're filing formal complaints with the state department of education.”
A Twitter post stated that the State is has only given the PSD a partial amount of the emergency funds they promised. Is there any explanation for the delay? What can the district do about it?
“The state has delivered exactly $2 million out of a requested $120 million state emergency package requested by its own state takeover board. In addition, they are holding hostage $45 million in federal funds due to schools contingent on mysterious union concessions they refuse to identify. Instead they are focused on demanding that the teacher's union provide more than $130 million in concessions, or roughly $7,000 per teacher. As a state takeover district, the state has done an irresponsible job of defining and upholding the safety and learning of students against such deliberate and purposeful negligence on the state's part.”
After seeing a photo of the PSD crisis plan for suicide threats in school, there is concern for the safety of students since some schools don’t have a nurse, counselor, or school resource officer. Is the district planning on revising that plan or are they just waiting for a lawsuit?
“One area that has not been reduced is the District's legal department and it’s hiring of outside counsel. I think that's a pretty clear statement on where the District thinks it's headed.”
What can people across the country do to help support the PSD if they don’t live in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania?
“If people feel moved financially, there are a number of initiatives that teachers are doing to independently raise money for their schools. I'd ask for people to support the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which is working to log and file complaints around the situation in the public schools. This is a critical effort to try and get us out of this mind-numbing game of figuring out the lowest and most minimal funding possible and re-focusing attention on both the spirit and letter of the PA constitution demanding a ‘thorough and efficient’ education for all children in the state. They can donate at www.pilcop.org/donate/
Finally, people need to begin drawing the connections between what's happening in Philadelphia to their own localities and the struggle for public education's future nationally. Never before has there been greater question about whether this nation will uphold the vision of public education that came about less than a century ago. This is a fight, which calls all of us to duty.”
As Helen pointed out, classroom sizes and the lack of support in Philadelphia is staggering. How can any parent feel confident that his or her child is going to get quality education when the teachers are devoting probably a third or more of the school day to classroom management? I don’t know this for a fact, but when you have class sizes between 30 and 50 students and not enough desks and chairs, there will be a lot of time spent on classroom management. These are not college lecture hall classes; these are elementary, middle school and high school classes. Philadelphia students are also expressing their concern about returning to schools that are understaffed. In an interview with NBC10 Philadelphia, Gian Carlos Rodriguez said he’s concerned about getting bullied and picked on in high school with no one around to help him out. At the time of the interview, Rodriguez said that he was scared and had a personal message for Governor Tom Corbett. “Our parents voted for you,” Gian told NBC10’s Nefertiti Jaquez, “And you’re basically turning your back on us. We need you to do your job and get the money from somewhere else.” Unfortunately, for Gian and all of the Philadelphia students, the pleas to the governor are falling on deaf ears. Good or bad, however, the rest of the United States is starting to take notice.
Even two of Philadelphia’s most prestigious schools aren’t immune to the state’s Doomsday Budget antics. Central High School and Masterman School are both magnet schools that take in top students from across the city. In 2005, Central opened its new library, a $4.5 million research and media hub that was funded by alumni, and Apple Inc. called it a national model. Masterman, the top-performing academic school in Pennsylvania, received a grant two years ago to bolster its library. A lot of hard work and energy was devoted to upgrade both libraries. Both libraries, however, are now closed due to budget cuts and librarians were on the list to be released. While some schools have tried to staff the libraries with other employees, providing them with dual roles, finding an available staff member is quite difficult this school year. Loretta Burton, the former librarian at Central High School, says many students don’t have Internet or computers at home and needed the library.
The situation in Philadelphia, as well as Chicago, has produced some strong opinions about the current state of education in the United States. Lance Jackson, a school administrator in Alaska, believes this type of scenario could become more frequent across the U.S. if it’s not handled properly. “I feel it is a shame but it’s a wake up call for those school systems that serve minority populations,” Jackson said. “I don’t mean minority in the sense of black or white, but in the service or socio-economic populations which happen to fall into the realm or poor Black, poor Caucasian, Poor Latino, Poor Hispanic and now poor refugee. School systems have to learn to adapt and become ‘providers’ of education for a more mobile student. Additionally, the government needs to limit their hand in education. They don’t know how to run schools and they don’t have the resources to provide for any change that will provide growth for schools inside of the current NCLB Model. This crisis is not just limited to Philadelphia and it could be a sign of the times for schools that serve these socio-economic groups.”
Mr. Jackson isn’t the only educator to share thoughts about the Philadelphia crisis. Nikol Kelley is a teacher at Centauri Middle School in La Jara, Colorado. Kelley told me, “I find the Philadelphia school crisis scary. Colorado is in the bottom ten of education funding for all states so we could definitely be in the same situation in the next few years. I think all large school districts probably have concerns about this happening to them. Every educator knows that money is spread very thin.” The Colorado Middle School Teacher also shared the same perception that Philadelphia student Gian Carlos Rodriguez stated in his interview. “We need someone to actually put education as a top priority for our nation,” Kelley continued, “Instead of just saying they will do it and then turning around and handing out budget cuts.”
After my article was posted, I read some comments that accused me of being liberal and pro-union. It doesn’t matter if I’m conservative or liberal; it doesn’t matter if I’m pro-union or anti-union. This is about the children of Philadelphia, and Chicago, not getting a proper education; it’s not about conservative or liberal viewpoints. There is a crisis in Philadelphia, the eighth-largest school district in the United States, in the country’s fifth-largest city, and the people of the United States, especially elected officials, need to take notice. We cannot afford to let the government choke the life out of the School District of Philadelphia.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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