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‘This is a crisis’: Philly principals say student needs are increasing and the district needs to get more dollars into schools

“Particularly coming off a year like this one — how can we be thinking of cutting anything? We can only imagine what September is going to look like," said Kim Ellerbee, Powel Elementary principal.

Dr. Kahlila Lee, principal of Overbrook High School, poses for a portrait outside the school. Lee says her school budget does not stretch to fill all the positions her students need. She's losing nearly four teaching positions and an assistant principal next year.
Dr. Kahlila Lee, principal of Overbrook High School, poses for a portrait outside the school. Lee says her school budget does not stretch to fill all the positions her students need. She's losing nearly four teaching positions and an assistant principal next year.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

At Overbrook High School, 4 in 10 students require special-education services, but there was no money in principal Kahlila Lee’s budget for a special-education liaison in the fall, so she had to sacrifice a teacher to pay for one.

COVID-19 has hit the school hard: Overbrook’s projected fall enrollment is 394 students, 100 fewer than were on the rolls in September. Virtual learning has been tough for Lee’s learners, many of whom work and are dealing with housing or economic insecurity. But because of the way the Philadelphia School District doles out dollars to schools, Lee will have less money to deal with students who will have greater needs come fall.

“This is a crisis,” said Lee, who is losing an assistant principal and almost four teaching positions. “How do I pick between a counselor and a teacher?”

Lee is one of a host of Philadelphia principals speaking out against the district’s traditional budget structure, which allots dollars based on enrollment only, not need, and often leaves school leaders making impossible decisions. If principals want positions like math and reading specialists, assistant principals, special-education liaisons, and climate managers, they have to find the money themselves.

The principals, members of Commonwealth Association of School Administrators Local, Teamsters Local 502, say that must change.

Ultimately, Lee chose to buy the special-ed position and extra counselor for the fall; three of her students — Washeem Mason, Sabir Mack, and Tamir Brown — have been killed this school year, and Lee knows she won’t be able to help students unless she meets their social and emotional needs first. A full-time staffer is needed to deal with the mountain of special-education casework and student need.

But she worries where that will leave Overbrook students academically. Just 1% of students met state standards in algebra, 10% in reading, and 7% in science, according to 2019 data, the most recent available. Since the pandemic hit, more children are failing, more are over age and under-credited, attendance is tanking.

“Our children are failing to produce; our off-track data will be worse than it is,” said Lee, a 1989 Overbrook graduate. When she attended the school, which produced famous alumni including Wilt Chamberlain and Will Smith, there were extracurricular programs, plus robust art and music programs to help keep kids interested in school. Lee uses her extracurricular money to pay for credit recovery programs, and she’s barely holding on to her art teacher and a part-time music teacher.

The Overbrook she attended as a student and the Overbrook she runs as a principal bear little resemblance, she said.

“It doesn’t compare,” said Lee. “It is dire.”

In Philadelphia, “the reality is, what resources students have access to is dependent on where they land,” said Kimberly Ellerbee, the principal of Powel Elementary. “We’re not asking for the sun and moon, we’re asking for basic resources.”

Powel, a K-4 in Powelton Village, has 300 students. Despite being virtual for a year, its students have made gains in reading and math, in every single grade. Ellerbee believes that’s because of the support of literacy and math lead teachers the school had this year, one paid for by Drexel University and one by the district’s central office.

“Particularly coming off a year like this one — how can we be thinking of cutting anything?” said Ellerbee. “We can only imagine what September is going to look like. Across the board, we’re going to need more to do this job well.”

The Philadelphia school system stands to get $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money, but it’s a one-time shot in the arm and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he won’t spend it on recurring costs, like teacher salaries. If the district did, the school system, already facing a long-term structural deficit, could not sustain those positions, officials say.

Principals’ jobs were never easy, but Robin Cooper, head of the Philadelphia principals’ union, said things have gotten markedly more difficult in recent years, with less autonomy for school leaders and higher thresholds to meet to get help. Schools used to get assistant principals when they had 500 students; now it’s 700.

“Our principals barely have enough to be able to do anything,” said Cooper, who ran schools for many years. “The school looks chaotic, but they weren’t able to make good decisions [about which critical positions to staff]. When you lack an array of basic resources that are needed in every school, what do you expect?”

CASA, Cooper’s union, wants the district to commit to guaranteeing centrally funded assistant principals, math and literacy lead teachers, special-education compliance monitors, and climate managers in every school. It’s not clear how much such an ask would cost.

The human cost of not funding them is great, said Lauren Overton, principal of Penn Alexander in West Philadelphia.

“Schools in whiter neighboring districts recognize the need for these critical positions, and their students are the beneficiaries of this commitment,” said Overton. “Many of the charter schools within the city are structured to include these positions and more. Despite this year after year, you expect schools to do more with less. We can simply look to the district’s data for literacy and math to see what is missing.”

To Leah Coleman, principal of Stephen Girard Elementary in South Philadelphia, it’s about equity.

“Our actions speak louder than our words ever will in communicating our priorities, and I sincerely hope that when our students, our communities, and our city see where we emphasize dollars in this coming year’s budget, there will be no question that we value our children,” said Coleman. “What we face are gaps in funding and opportunity, so provide schools with the resources we need to provide students with the support they need to be successful.”

District officials said they would discuss budget priorities and costs more at Thursday’s board meeting.

Principals’ advocacy — many began making their case to the school board last week — has attracted attention. The board said it means to focus much more intensely on academics and equity, holding Hite’s administration more accountable for student performance and making tough choices to engender change.

Heading into school budget season, the board said it will consider principals’ cries for help as it makes decisions about how to spend more than $3 billion educating 120,000 in district-run schools. Many are watching.

“We can say a whole lot of things, but we have to put action to it,” board vice president Leticia Egea-Hinton said at last week’s meeting.