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Parents, teachers concerned about readiness

With classes starting in less than a week, many Philadelphia schools struggling with staff and budget cuts find themselves anything but ready.

First-graders (left) Claire Dwyer, 6, and (right) Giovanni Piscitelli, 6, sit on the steps of Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Philadelphia. In the center is Claire's sister, Celeste Dwyer, 3, September 3, 2013.  (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
First-graders (left) Claire Dwyer, 6, and (right) Giovanni Piscitelli, 6, sit on the steps of Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Philadelphia. In the center is Claire's sister, Celeste Dwyer, 3, September 3, 2013. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)Read more

With classes starting in less than a week, many Philadelphia schools struggling with staff and budget cuts find themselves anything but ready.

Take the Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia: It will have no school-based counselor for its 494 students, two support staffers (down from six), and four fewer teachers, even though its enrollment grew by 95.

That means class sizes of 35 or more in some grades, at least for the first month or so. It means cramming more desks into crowded rooms, getting volunteer help from a laid-off staffer, and sending Jackson's rock band out to a Main Line prep school to raise money.

"We're facing overcrowded classrooms. We don't have enough books. We don't have enough desks," said Michelle Brozdonis, who teaches first grade. "We just know it's not feasible for the kids to get what they need with this."

Wendy Segal, a second-grade teacher, added: "We have people donating paper to us because we don't have it."

Across the city, staffs at other schools are feeling the same apprehension, wondering how they will deliver education with far fewer resources. Many will have new principals, teachers, and students transferred in from the 24 schools closed in June, making this new reality even more complex.

Brozdonis is scheduled to have 35 students in her class, including pupils with special needs and limited English. She wonders how she will give individual and small-group attention to her charges.

And there's a good chance her class size will grow, she said. New students tend to enroll the first few weeks.

"We may in two weeks be up to 40 in a class in first grade," Brozdonis said.

The school is getting desks from one of the closed schools. But Brozdonis wonders how 35 desks will fit.

"Right now I have 22 desks and it's crowded," she said.

Some Jackson parents gathered at the school Tuesday - the first day of school for teachers - to share their mounting concerns with The Inquirer.

"We're pricing homes in the suburbs," said Maura Dwyer, a cellist whose daughter, Claire, 6, will be a first grader. "We're deeply committed to public education and deeply committed to public education in Philadelphia, but at what cost to my own child?"

Dwyer said her daughter had a great kindergarten teacher last year who was transferred because of budget cuts. There were grants for a green roof garden; the teacher, Robert Malara, who lives near the school, was the official gardener. Now the funds are in doubt, she said. The school, meanwhile, had to move teachers from upper grades to cover kindergarten.

Dwyer and other parents said they were perplexed that the district hasn't sent more teachers to Jackson, given the large enrollments. Under the teachers' contract, primary grades are capped at 30 students per teacher, upper grades at 33. The district has until October to make adjustments.

In other years, however, the district would have sent new teachers before the start of school if enrollment ran this high, said Jackson principal Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan.

"They are going to disrupt [children] a month into the school year," said Ashley Piscitelli, whose son, Giovanni, is a first grader. "It's going to throw them off."

Kaplan said she shares parents' concerns.

"This is a horrible situation," the principal said. "I'm so frustrated. My teachers are feeling it. I grew [by] 95 kids. I don't have a budget to buy 95 more textbooks and consumables" - such as paper and worksheets.

Not to mention the loss of staff: "These are multiple jobs that have just gone away, but the work hasn't gone away."

She's grateful for help from community groups. A neighbor donated four cases of paper. A laid-off aide is volunteering. A 15-year-old Radnor girl collected 410 backpacks stuffed with supplies. This month, Jackson's student rock band will play at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr and collect donations.

But that won't bring back the counselor. Parent Michele McDonnell is especially concerned about that loss - her son, an eighth grader, has Asperger's syndrome. The counselor "was the first one for my son to go to if he had an outburst," she said.

School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said roving counselors will serve schools without a full-time counselor. He said the district intends to restore more staff once it settles union contracts, with the goal of saving $133 million. Teachers and the district continued talks Tuesday, but no agreement was reached.

Christina Grimes, an architect active in a group supporting Jackson, plans to send her 4-year-old daughter, Parker, to Jackson if problems can be resolved.

"I like the idea that Parker would go to a school with kids who speak 14 different languages," she said. "But that only works when those teachers are equipped enough to handle the demands of a diverse student body, and right now, they are not."

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