Magnifying glasses and binoculars in hand, a group of Philadelphia public school students took to the street yesterday to protest what they say is a lack of attention to students' interests in teacher contract negotiations.
"Although we have a lot at stake in the teachers' contract, there is no way for us to know whether or not our concerns are being addressed," said Candace Carter, a senior at Sayre High School and member of the Philadelphia Student Union, which sponsored the demonstration.
Students said the talks between the district and its largest union were not giving high enough priority to teacher equity - an effort to reduce the concentration of novice teachers and those not deemed "highly qualified" under the federal No Child Left Behind law in the lowest-performing schools.
The magnifying glasses and binoculars, they said, were to "look for students in the new teacher contract."
Finesse Davis, a senior at Overbrook High, said she had seen the problem of new and unqualified teachers at her school.
"I've seen students cut class and come to my classroom to avoid bad teachers," Davis said. "The system of teacher distribution in Philadelphia is broken."
The contract of 16,000 teachers, secretaries, nurses, and other support staff expired Aug. 31, but members voted to extend the deadline to Oct. 31.
The length of the contract is a key issue; three other unions in the Philadelphia School District have signed one-year deals, which new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said would allow her to get grounded in the district before locking in to multiyear deals. Officials from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have said they do not want a one-year deal.
The union also opposes Ackerman's desire to lengthen the school day. But she has also proposed raising base salary for teachers and offering more money for teachers who work in hard-to-fill jobs and failing schools.
Cecilia Cummings, a district spokeswoman, said Ackerman agreed with the student group. "The district's top priority in negotiating the current contract is ensuring that we place teachers where children most need them."
Because Ackerman arrived at the tail end of last school year, she has not had time to do "due diligence" on all the issues important to her. She is asking for a one-year contract in part, Cummings said, "so that we can continue to inform and involve the important constituiencies, and students are certainly one of them."
In a statement, Cummings said Ackerman would welcome inviting students and parents to observe negotiations, as she has done in other cities, if the union approves.
President Jerry Jordan insisted that the union "has always taken a position of watching out for kids, at all levels."
He acknowledged that teacher equity was "a tremendous challenge," and that the union had asked for more support for new teachers, including teacher coaches and mentors.
About two dozen students from around the city yesterday gathered on Spring Garden Street outside Masterman, an elite district middle and high school, to talk about teacher equity.
They called attention to data compiled by the Cross City Campaign for School Reform, an alliance of local education groups, that show only 68 percent of teachers in so-called Corrective Action 2 schools - schools that have failed state tests for several years running - are considered highly qualified. These schools are concentrated in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
To meet that standard, teachers must have a college degree in the subject they teach, must be state-certified, and must have demonstrated knowledge in their subject.
"If we don't have qualified teachers at these schools, how are we going to fix them?" asked Erika Almiron, the Philadelphia Student Union's assistant director.
She said that the students had met with union and district representatives, but that their concerns were not being taken seriously.
Greg Jordan-Detamore, a junior at Masterman, goes to a school with excellent teachers. But he said he was uncomfortable knowing that his peers did not all have the same experience.
"It creates this weird situation," he said. "If I didn't get to go to Masterman - if I went to University City, my neighborhood high school - I'd have a completely different experience. That would set me up for a completely different future."