IT IS NOT NEWS that many of Philadelphia's children live very difficult lives. More than one-fifth are born into poverty. More and more are coping with the effects of gun violence, whether losing a family member or living in fear of leaving their own homes.
Part of any school's mission is to provide a safe haven for its students. In the past two years, Philadelphia's schools have lost many of the people who have provided assistance and comfort to distressed students, including nurses, counselors and librarians. Financial constraints, school district officials say, prevent them from bringing back more of the support staff let go last summer. That may be the case. But can anyone justify the trauma being unnecessarily inflicted by the school district itself?
Should district leaders have their way, students in four more neighborhood schools would lose almost all of their teachers in June. Principals in two of those schools would also be forced out. Because the School Reform Commission has not scheduled any hearings on the subject, it has been hard to pin them down on the reasons for this radical change.
As the next two Renaissance charter schools, Steel Elementary would be assigned to Mastery Charter Schools, Munoz-Marin Elementary to Aspira Inc. These conversions could cost the district up to $4,000 more per pupil, although it is not clear how much of that would go directly to classrooms. The district has given parents no assurances that the schools would receive any more resources should they choose to remain in the district.
Parents at both schools, who have been given a deadline of May 1 to decide their schools' fates, have told Dr. Hite that they cannot understand why this money is only available for private operators to run the school or why the district could not make these same investments to them as public schools.
At Blaine and W.D. Kelley elementary schools in Strawberry Mansion, parents, teachers and students were shocked to learn in March that most of their teachers would be forced out in June because they had been chosen as "Transformation Schools," a new category with unknown ramifications. Parents and teachers had been encouraged to submit grant proposals to the private Philadelphia School Partnership for funds to help alleviate problems created by a sudden increase in enrollment after neighboring schools were closed. Their excitement at being lent a helping hand after years of budget cuts was dashed when they found out that the money was contingent upon the wholesale elimination of the faculty. Students who came from schools closed the year before would be losing their teachers two years in a row. Young children especially, who do not understand the politics behind these decisions, often believe that the teachers and principals forced out against their will are simply abandoning them. They think that they must have done something wrong.
Last summer, after laying off thousands of district employees, Dr. Hite asked the SRC to suspend seniority rights of school professionals, saying that it was important that the children "see the same faces" when they returned in September. Why does this not apply to the students in the four schools slated for conversion? Private operators such as Mastery Inc. and Aspira do not have to consider experience or citations of excellence when choosing which teachers to keep and which to force out. They are not required to give any reason at all for their choices.
Philadelphia's children have lost their schools, they have lost many electives to prep classes for high-stakes tests, they have lost their libraries, they have lost counselors and nurses with whom they have developed strong relationships. They should not be made, because of vague reasons and rushed procedures, to lose any more.