At George Washington High School, an already volatile situation escalated when a teacher was viciously attacked by students earlier this month. In schools across the district, many students have yet to be assigned a full-time teacher. The School Reform Commission approved a $34 million contract to outsource substitutes, and although the year began with an 11 percent fill rate and has yet to exceed 30 percent, the SRC has refused to cancel that contract. A recent Philadelphia Public School Notebook article told the story of one Northeast High student who carries a seven-subject roster but, as of last month, has only three full-time teachers. Students have been assigned report card grades for classes in which they have learned very little, if anything. Not surprisingly, disciplinary problems have increased significantly.
Teachers covering classes lose their daily preparation period and must use their own personal time to prepare lessons, mark papers, call parents and consult with staff. The bare-bones budget — once a crisis, now the new normal — has forced them to take on many roles including nurse, counselor and custodian. Yet the SRC continues to threaten them with the loss of their contract and with it all workplace protections.
In the face of vocal and organized opposition from parents and the community, Superintendent William Hite continues to hand neighborhood public schools over to charter companies. In the past two years, lack of district oversight has resulted in the unexpected closure of a number of charter schools midyear, leaving students and parents scrambling.
Clearly, the School District of Philadelphia has reached a level of dysfunction not seen in recent history, if ever. But those in charge of our public schools don't seem to think there is a crisis, let alone take responsibility for fixing it.
Public schools across the state are struggling to operate with inadequate funding. But conditions in Philadelphia's schools cannot be attributed simply to a funding crisis. They stem from a crisis of leadership and a lack of accountability at the top.
The spending priorities of the district have changed significantly in the past three years. The current budget reflects a new policy that shifts responsibility for providing basic resources from the administration and places it at the school level. Principals must present "wish lists" for support staff. Whether students have access to a nurse or counselor or librarian is now the luck of the draw. At the same time, Superintendent Hite's Action Plan 3.0 has established "specialized networks, each requiring distinct expertise, management, oversight, and resourcing."
Three new high schools opened last year in the Innovation Network; two more are planned for next year. A handful of schools have been selected to take part in the Transformation Program or the Redesign Program. But diverting money and resources into experimental programs, rather than making sure allschools have what they need, only perpetuates an inequitable system.
In a report released earlier this month, Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth examined the effects of the spending priorities of district leaders. After extensive research and surveys of teachers, principals, parents and students, PCCY concluded that "the strategy of creating new options has not proven to be a panacea ... while the creation of small, specialized high schools has created opportunity for some students, the effort to create these schools has diverted time, resources, and attention away from the hard and necessary work of improving the high schools where a majority of the District's students were enrolled. In addition, it has exacerbated the concentration of poverty in the District."
District stakeholders were dismayed to see the SRC vote — one week after its announcement, but after no public deliberation — to extend Superintendent Hite's contract for five more years, until 2022. Neff has said that the district must decide now, eighteen months before the contract expires, in order to maintain stability, something which has diminished in the schools themselves in the past three years. Neff told reporters "We're headed in the right direction." Those are ominous words to many public school parents, teachers and students in Philadelphia.
Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.