Dozens of Philadelphia School District teachers will soon be “leveled," displaced from their schools and sent to new ones to account for shifts in enrollment, with some students set to lose their teachers a month into the term.
That the system will remove teachers from established classrooms during a pandemic, in a school year already marked by upheaval and uncertainty, has school communities and advocates aghast.
“The worst thing that you could probably do right now is to snatch teachers away from kids,” said one principal whose school is likely to be impacted, but who asked not to be identified as criticizing district policy for fear of retribution. “Our kids need consistency now.”
While other districts have the means to keep class sizes small if fewer children than anticipated show up, and to hire additional teachers if rooms are crowded, that’s not a reality in Philadelphia, officials say. They call leveling distasteful but necessary, not just financially but as a way to relieve overcrowding at some schools.
Uri Monson, the school system’s chief financial officer, said the district has worked to minimize the effects of leveling, last year shifting 55 teachers — about a half-percent of the teaching force — down from 85 the year prior. It approved 75 exceptions, paying about $9 million to keep teachers who technically should have been leveled, if they had special training, for instance, or if shifting them would have disrupted students with autism.
With the pandemic, “everyone involved with this recognizes that we’re seeing new things each day, and we’re going to have to identify them, figure out what’s going on, and be prepared to work around and make accommodations,” Monson said. “We’re trying to get the best data to make the best decisions under the worst possible circumstances.”
Leveling, which will be completed by Oct. 5, will be based on enrollment and attendance data collected through this week. Students who don’t log on to any virtual classes by Friday will be removed from schools’ rolls.
“With the School District server crashing last week, ever-changing policies around online registrations, email server crashing, we are more than a week behind on registrations,” one principal wrote to their staff this week. “This process has been harmful most to our immigrant and refugee families.… We are bracing for the loss of teachers due to a broken online registration system.”
Monson said the district will be “as expansive as possible” in capturing students’ attendance and making accommodations for those who have had challenges logging in.
The principal whose school is likely vulnerable to leveling reported being stunned that leveling is going forward, with an estimated 18,000 students citywide still lacking internet access, early problems with the district’s computer servers and email, and the confusion that goes along with a shift to all-remote classes.
The principal believes that when schools return to in-person instruction, as early as November, they will likely see an influx of registrations.
“The kids inevitably come back, and when they come back, we won’t have the staffing to support them,” the principal said.
Monson and other district officials say that leveling is a matter of equity, that it allows them to send resources to schools that need them, and that school leaders and assistant superintendents can make the case for exceptions before leveling actually happens. But the principal and others worry that schools that educate large numbers of Black students and those learning English are most vulnerable, and that the exception process can be political.
Over the past months, district leaders have affirmed their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the principal who spoke out against leveling said policies like leveling fly in the face of that.
“It feels like that was all platitudes,” the principal said. “When the rubber hits the road, the policies are incongruent.”
Stephanie King, a parent of two children in the district, is a perennial critic of leveling. But this year’s fight is different, she said.
“This year is brutal already,” King said. “Teachers are breaking their necks trying to put something on Zoom or Google Classroom, to keep it together to get the kids to do anything. Parents are going nuts. Kids are freaked out and desperate for some sense of normalcy.”
King’s younger child’s school, Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties, lost teachers to leveling several years running, and it still feels the effects, she said.
“It remains inconceivable to me that they pull teachers out of already established classrooms,” said King, a coauthor of a petition asking the district to halt leveling for this school year. “It’s such a grinchy thing to do.”
Bridget O’Grady is safe this year. But two years ago, she was leveled out of another job, unable to explain to families why she left.
“It breaks up school communities,” O’Grady said, “and it hurts students.”