Suffer, little children: A Philadelphia teacher’s tale

School budget cuts: A view from the front lines

5 minute read
Good morning, fourth graders— or are you first graders?
Good morning, fourth graders— or are you first graders?
Today I learned that, for the fourth time since I became a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system, I will be "forced-transferred" from my school, due to budget problems.

Allow me to explain. The Philadelphia School District has an incredibly antiquated system of determining which teachers stay at schools with declining enrollment and who must leave.

The decision to cut positions at a school is based on enrollment and teacher allotment. If your enrollment drops and you're the last hired teacher in your school, or near to the last hired, you may be forced to choose another school. You can submit a "right to return," which will allow you to return to your "home school" as soon as enrollment increases or a teacher retires or more money is found so that a class can be split to allow two teachers in a grade.

Merging two classes

The most recent budget eliminates two classes per grade at my school and allows just one. As many as four teachers at our school may have to pick new schools, assuming there are new schools from which to choose.

Another budget comes out in June. At that time, if you're still cut, you'll definitely have to choose a school.

Finally, in October of each year, there's a system called "leveling out," which means that if enrollment picks up at the beginning of the year unexpectedly (usually because parents failed to register their children in a timely manner), you may be able to return to your "home" school.

But here's the real problem. No matter how you slice it, the students suffer.

Shopping spree

Picture yourself a teacher who spends a few days before school starts preparing for your class— say, fourth grade. The supplies you purchase are resources the school may lack, like paper and pencils and homework books that I require my students to use. At my home school, I can usually get paper, but only during testing do I get pencils. My students never have supplies, so it's just easier to buy the materials myself.

Although the school serves breakfast, one of my colleagues recognized that one of her students never ate breakfast. So she buys yogurt for this child. I, too, frequently bring in food for my kids. The School District reimburses teachers for our purchases (up to $100) and we can deduct up to $250 for income tax purposes, but it's not unusual to spend well over $1,000 yearly.

This year, because you've been forced-transferred, you find yourself in a new school teaching a new grade, which happens to be first grade. Back at your "home" school, you know, the classes are oversized. You're pretty sure you'll be able to return to your home school. But meanwhile you have to teach these first graders.

You go to the teacher's stores all over the place, getting supplies you think will work for first graders. During the first week of school, you make continual, frantic trips to those teacher stores because you realize you need more materials; there's no way the stuff you have for fourth, fifth and sixth graders can be used for first graders. Nonetheless, you can't divest yourself of the materials for fourth, fifth and sixth graders because you may be teaching them in six weeks, when leveling out occurs.

Within a few weeks, you fall in love with your new first-grade students. They love your corny jokes that the older kids mocked. They like to sing, as you do. They love school, unlike the older kids. They love you. And that's really cool.

Two days' notice

Then, suddenly, at beginning of October, you receive a letter telling you to return to your home school in two days. This means you have to pack up the room it took you a week to establish, find a place for the $500 to $1,000 worth of materials you've purchased to make the room work and return to your home school.

Your new students are devastated that you're leaving. After all, didn't you just tell them how much you loved them?

At your home school, an oversized class is divided. Some students stay in their room; others leave for a new classroom. Either they're thrilled because they know you from last year, or they're upset because they're leaving their new friends.

Playing catch-up

After you've dismantled the classroom you set up at the new school, you schlep everything somewhere"“ your home, your basement, your storage bin, your friends' house— because now you need to find your fourth grade materials to see if they can work for third grade, which you'll be teaching at your home school. (You've taught fourth, fifth and sixth, but never third.) You're given a day or two to set up your room for the new grade.

Once ensconced in your home school, you proceed to play "catch up" for months while you accustom yourself to the new routine and the new curriculum. You're glad to be back "home," but you need to run out and buy more stuff to make this classroom functional.

'Leveling out'

During the four years I was forced-transferred (or traumatized by the prospect of a forced transfer that didn't happen), all of this aggravation could have been avoided, because, from the day school started in September, my home school kept calling the School District and insisting that its enrollment numbers were high. But the officials at the School District declined to take action until October, when the "leveling out" process takes place. Only at this point do the School District administrators look at the numbers of enrolled students to see if additional teachers are needed.

While I ultimately grew to love the students in my classes, any year of forced transfer was challenging, due at least in some part to the fact that I start with them in the second week in October rather than the beginning of September.

When will the "forced transfer" situation be fixed? Who knows? Some day, I hope, someone of influence will see how this system hurts children.♦

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