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Despite millions to spend, Philly’s summer school is off to a rocky start

"We have no material — not a thing. Anything that has been brought in, teachers brought in, our own pencil, paper, crayons," said Ivey Welshans, a special-education teacher.

Lynnette Rosario, 19, a senior at Frankford High School, stands for a portrait outside Central High School, her site for summer school classes. When summer school began Monday, Rosario said she was initially sent to the wrong school, made to wait outside for hours, and then given an incomplete roster of classes she needed.
Lynnette Rosario, 19, a senior at Frankford High School, stands for a portrait outside Central High School, her site for summer school classes. When summer school began Monday, Rosario said she was initially sent to the wrong school, made to wait outside for hours, and then given an incomplete roster of classes she needed.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia School District is spending millions on expanded summer school designed to help kids catch up after 16 months of virtual learning and a tough COVID-19 year.

But the program’s rollout has been rocky.

Classes started this week with thousands more enrolled than in previous summers, and parents, teachers, and students described a chaotic start, with a shortage of staff, confusing or incorrect schedules, and many schools and classrooms lacking critical materials. One educator charged with teaching math and science told The Inquirer she showed up to discover the supplies she needs to teach students aren’t scheduled to arrive until the end of the summer session.

“All the other teachers I know, they don’t have any paper, there’s no pencils; we’re struggling to even get smartboard markers,” said another teacher, Rebecca Baudile, an art teacher working at Overbrook Educational Center this summer who counts herself lucky because she has classroom materials. “Everyone knows very little, and everything is changing every moment.”

Flush with a $1 billion infusion of federal COVID-19 recovery money, schools around the region and across the country are offering beefed-up summer programs. But the shaky Philadelphia rollout shows both that a fuller return to classrooms this fall could be tough and that money alone will not solve students’ needs.

Monica Lewis, the School District spokesperson, said the bumps were to be expected, given the expanded scale of the program. In all, about 15,000 students are enrolled in summer programming, thousands more than any year in recent memory. She said district leaders are pleased that “people are looking forward to coming back, and do feel confident and comfortable being in our school buildings.”

But “it’s new, it’s taking some getting used to from all parties involved,” Lewis said. “It’s not unlike activities you would see during the start of a new school year.”

Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, said more students showed up than expected, and while officials are happy with the level of interest, it’s also meant more staff is needed.

» READ MORE: Philly plans expanded summer school, open to all

The school system began the summer hiring process in March, and to date has about 2,000 teachers, administrators, and support staff hired, but has vacancies in the high school and extended school year programs. Shambaugh said she couldn’t yet disclose a firm number of vacancies because enrollment is still in flux but said she is filling them with substitute teachers and contract employees who typically work for the district.

“We want to see the resolution for our class gaps as soon as possible,” Shambaugh said.

One veteran teacher with several years’ summer experience under her belt said she typically expects a certain amount of chaos when students from across a large school system come together in new schools with different staff. But this year’s summer school — larger and more ambitious than any in recent memory — is worse, the teacher said.

“It’s out of control,” said the teacher, who works at Powel Elementary this summer and asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “It’s every man for yourself. Parents are expecting their kids to be taken care of and put in the correct class, and we don’t even know where to put kids — it’s a mess, the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Philadelphia is offering several programs, including an extended school year program for students with special needs, which runs annually as mandated by the federal government; “quarter five,” an opportunity for high school students to make up classes they failed this academic year; and summer learning, open to students in all grades, with opportunities for academics and enrichment.

Lynnette Rosario was determined to ace her last summer in the Philadelphia School District. The senior at Frankford High School said she was told to report to Fels High School in the lower Northeast on Monday for her classes.

Rosario showed up on time. She waited for 30 minutes outside Fels, then was told Frankford students were actually supposed to report to Central High, in the Logan section of the city. Rosario made her way there, only to wait for two hours.

She finally got into the building, she said, after calling a Frankford teacher who was not working but helped her figure out how to get in. Rosario sat in a room for an hour, then finally got a class schedule.

“My roster was wrong,” she said. “It only had one class, but I needed three.”

Maecki and Robert Whitney had a similarly rocky start to their twins’ summer experience. Mackenzie and Madison, twin third graders at John B. Kelly Elementary in Germantown, were registered to have extended school year programs at Kelly, but when they got there, they were told they actually should be at Parkway Northwest, 15 minutes away. Parkway sent them and other students back to Kelly. One twin was registered, but not the other — despite the family signing papers months ago for both girls to attend summer school.

The girls’ previous summer experiences in the district have been smooth, the Whitneys said.

“The district bit off more than they could chew this year with the summer programs,” said Maecki Whitney.

At West Philadelphia High, staffing levels are fine, said Ivey Welshans, a special-education teacher, but “we have no material — not a thing. Anything that has been brought in, teachers brought in, our own pencil, paper, crayons.”

Lewis, the district spokesperson, said summer school classes mostly rely on digital materials. She said that parents were told to send their children’s district-issued Chromebooks with them for summer school, and that backpacks full of supplies should be distributed to children sometime this week.

But multiple teachers told The Inquirer their students received instructions to leave their computers at home. Others said their high school seniors had to give back computers to their home schools when the year ended.

For months, officials talked about summer programming as a way to counteract COVID-19 effects.

“They had months to figure out how to make this work,” said Welshans. “You have a whole group of brown and Black children that are high needs and have missed a whole year in the classroom, and now this?”

Curriculum has also been an issue in some places.

Gianni Gaudino, teaching English this summer at High School of the Future, wants to give his students a meaningful experience but has concerns about materials and curriculum. He’s supposed to steer project-based learning, but just received a large shipment of novels with no explanation of how to incorporate them into the class.

Gaudino is also concerned that the curriculum is not culturally sensitive, as promised. He perused his five weeks’ worth of materials and noted “mostly articles and short stories written by white men, and that’s not culturally responsive for my students. ... It’s really important to keep classes motivating for students to come, but when the curriculum is not engaging, that’s a problem.”

A summer learning teacher at Mayfair Elementary said she’s supposed to teach science, technology, engineering, arts and math lessons once a week, but was told her materials won’t arrive until the last week of summer school. And she’s confused about a once-a-week period called “equity” on her class schedule — she’s received no instructions on what that means or how to teach it.

Before students arrived, teachers had a full week of work to prepare, she said.

“But I sat in a room and got paid $40 an hour to do nothing, other than one online professional development,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “I feel bad — what are the kids going to get out of this?”