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Critics: Teacher shortage equals summer school

Amid concern that a chronic teacher shortage is impeding student learning, the Philadelphia School District expects twice as many high school students to fail courses this year and be required to attend summer school.

This correction appears in Saturday's Inquirer and Daily News: A story in Friday's Inquirer erred in reporting that Philadelphia School District officials expect twice as many high school students to fail courses this year and be required to attend summer school. The district has expanded its summer program to accommodate juniors as well as seniors this year, a move that will double the available slots. However, officials say they do not yet know whether enrollment will grow because final student grades are not in. The original story follows below.

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Amid concern that a chronic teacher shortage is impeding student learning, the Philadelphia School District expects twice as many high school students to fail courses this year and be required to attend summer school.

District officials said this week that they were bracing for 1,000 high school students in summer classes this July, up from 500 last year. The expanded summer session will cost the district $546,000, they said.

In addition, the district expects to spend $1.3 million on what they described as summer enrichment classes for about 2,500 students in lower grades who score poorly in reading or math, or who have not had a certified teacher for a third of the year or longer.

The remedial and enrichment programs, announced this week, come as critics warn that persistent teacher vacancies in city schools are undermining academic achievement.

As of this week, school officials said, the district had 139 teacher vacancies, a figure they said represents 1.6 percent of its 8,443-member teaching force.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard acknowledged the staffing shortfall, but added, "For the first time in a long time, we are going out and letting people know that the School District of Philadelphia is hiring."

City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a longtime education activist, decried the teacher vacancies. By Gym's calculation, 139 vacancies would mean that approximately 7,413 students do not have qualified teachers.

"I think it's shocking and appalling. All of this is being borne by the students, who are being punished," she said.

District officials dispute a link between teacher vacancies and the rise in summer-school enrollment for high school students.

"This has nothing to do with teacher vacancies. This has to do with students who did not pass a course," said Gallard, who added that this year, the district was offering summer school to juniors who failed classes, a decision that increased the overall numbers.

Critics say the link is clear.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he was dismayed by the impact the teacher shortage is having on students.

"The opportunity for summer-school enrichment is good, but forcing students to go to summer school to recover credits that they should have gotten during the school year is problematic," he said.

Seniors who attend summer school will miss the chance to walk across graduation stages with their classmates because they still have to pass a class, he said.

"That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, many kids. They should not be penalized for no fault of their own," he said.

Students who successfully complete summer-school courses will receive their diplomas July 29.

Under previous administrations, Jordan said, the district made it a priority to fully staff schools by September. "They have to go back to making sure all vacancies are filled by September," he said. "The thing that is most alarming is that they have allowed it to go on all year."

At a hearing before City Council this week, the district's chief academic officer, Cheryl Logan, described the teacher-vacancy problem as "outrageous" and "terrible."

"One of the things that we are doing - and it's not going to ameliorate it, but - is to offer some additional summer programming with priority given to students in schools that had significant vacancies," she said.

When Gym asked Logan why students were being "punished" with summer school for the district's failure to hire enough qualified teachers, Logan replied: "I don't consider it a punishment."

"We have to do something to provide some sort of opportunity for our students," she said. "With the terrible issue that we've had with vacancies this year, we have many students - too many - that are in that situation."

Logan told Council that about 5,150 students in kindergarten through seventh grade would be eligible for summer enrichment programs as a result of teacher vacancies, but Gallard later put the figure at 2,500, including special-education students and students who speak English as a second language.

deanm@phillynews.com

215-854-4172 @mensahdean

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