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Annette John-Hall: As temperatures soar, Philadelphia school officials generate rhetorical heat

What do you think about Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's managing to save full-day kindergarten with an 11th-hour power move of Title I funds?

What do you think about Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's managing to save full-day kindergarten with an 11th-hour power move of Title I funds?

I applaud her for acting quickly, because it means working parents won't have to worry all summer about whether their kindergartners will fall behind, not to mention how they would find and pay for child care should their kids be relegated to half-days.

But what about the other must-haves on the chopping block given the district's $629 million budget deficit: teachers, nurses, summer school, bus service, tokens, arts programs, and who knows what else? - 3,000 programs across the board.

Now that Mayor Nutter has forced Ackerman to sign his educational accountability agreement, at least he'll know what the heck she's doing before he puts his political neck on the line.

Ah, it's all just another week in the life of Philadelphia public schools - an in-house drama that went national, with the two officials on separate MSNBC programs Tuesday insisting there was none. Yet they also went public Thursday, insisting they'd made up.

Well, OK.

Heat troubles

Still, as though Philly schools needed something else to trip them up, Mother Nature delivered a sweaty, near-triple-digit smackdown.

For the second consecutive day, onerous heat caused students to be dismissed two hours early. More learning deferred.

Severe weather hits Philadelphia schools especially hard. Many structures - like Overbrook High School, built in 1924 - are 75 years old or older with no central air.

Overbrook, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and nobly known as the Castle on the Hill, sweltered as the Furnace on the Hill Thursday.

"You're sitting in class fanning yourself the whole time," sophomore Shawnetta Tillman said as she sat on a stone rail waiting for her mother to pick her up.

"It's unbearable," agreed Frenchi Delpe, a junior.

"I couldn't even take my test because of the heat," ninth grader Joshua said as he sought relief with a cold Missile Pop.

Marie Richardson, 41, sitting in her air-conditioned car waiting to pick up daughter Shawnetta, said she didn't see how anyone could learn in such uncomfortable conditions.

She also can't imagine what else there is to eliminate from the school budget.

"There's nothing [Overbrook] can do without," she said. "The kids might as well go to the front door, sign in, and go back home. They don't have nothing as it is."

Facilities nightmare

Old electricity and plumbing make maintenance at Overbrook a facilities nightmare, principal Ethelyn Payne Young says.

If you really want to see something repulsive, Young says, come to the school after a hard rain, when the sewers back up.

The veteran principal says that if not for her insistence that her students stay at Overbrook for summer school three years ago, she wouldn't have the air-conditioning units she has now. And most of those are installed only on the sunny side of the 1,200-student school.

I'm betting that, with all the other problems to worry about, infrastructure repair isn't even on the district's radar.

Sadly, we seem to care more about building temples of entertainment for ourselves than we do about investing in the future.

Here's an idea: Maybe we can move students to the nearest mall, where the food court is nice and cool - unlike the stifling cafeteria at Overbrook. Seems like air-conditioning is easier to get in the shopping structures built every other year than in a place of learning.

Or how about holding class at the Wells Fargo Center? You couldn't ask for a better smart board, what with that high-tech scoreboard and Jumbotron screen.

The point is, everything seems to take priority over the one thing that matters most: our children's education. If we're ever going to climb out of the global gutter of achievement - right now the United States ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math among developed nations - we can't balance the budget on the backs of public schoolchildren.

I suppose the immediate good news for students is that today's forecast calls for a break, sort of.

A high of "only" 88.