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Philly students and educators deal with chaotic first week

AFT President Randi Weingarten was turned away at the door when she visited Philadelphia's Abraham Lincoln High School on Sept. 12 to see how students and educators were faring in a stripped-to-the-bone school system where state and local officials have failed to fund even the most basic health, safety and education services for students.

Philadelphia funding rally

Featured video: Randi Weingarten turned away at Lincoln High School.

"I was told that I was not allowed to go in while school is in session," Weingarten said after she was stopped at the metal detector in Lincoln High School's hallway and denied entry. She was informed by a call from school administrators that it would be too "disruptive" to allow her to see the classrooms, but the AFT president wasn't buying it—and neither were the students, parents, teachers and staff on hand.

"Obviously, they don't want us to see the conditions inside the schools," Weingarten told parents and reporters outside. She said it was the first time she had been barred from a visit to classrooms in more than 20 years as a teacher and union leader. And the move, she said, called into question schools Superintendent William Hite's recent characterization of an opening that went "reasonably well" at Philadelphia schools like Lincoln—a building that has gone from seven counselors to two, five secretaries to two, one librarian to zero, three school nurses to one, and 20 safety personnel to eight, and has cut 32 teachers in the current year.

"They need to put more people back into the school building," said parent Michele Bromley, who was also at the school when the incident happened. She described Lincoln as a school lacking everything from lockers and bathrooms to supervision in the hallways. "I'm concerned for the safety of my child."

Lincoln social studies teacher Pete Jepsen said his AP class has ballooned to 39 students—with only 26 books among them. "They just share," said Jepsen, who was called back just days before the start of the school year after being laid off twice before.

"Overwhelmed," is how Lincoln senior Javier Crespo-Mather describes the atmosphere inside the building. "It's bad down here. It just feels like we're the ones getting punished, like we're getting scraps" from the state and the city.

The senior is not alone in that view.

This week, students across Philadelphia returned to schools that have been stripped of nurses, art, music, librarians, extracurricular activities and counselors. They are being forced into overcrowded classrooms without enough desks, books or paper. In some schools, children from multiple grades are sharing the same classroom. Class sizes of 35 to 40 students are common. And students are being put in danger as they cross through unfamiliar and unsafe neighborhoods to get to new schools.

Philadelphia funding rally

Only 40 percent of schools have full-time counselors, often just one counselor for hundreds or sometimes even more than 1,000 students. Many schools also lost full-time nurses—forcing principals to distribute medication to students—and many buildings have just one secretary to register students and manage operations. Paraprofessionals and other support staff have been laid off, making it harder for children with special needs or who require extra support to get the help they need.

None of this was inevitable, Weingarten and activists from the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) stressed at a City Hall press conference hours before the incident at Lincoln High. Speakers said that Gov. Tom Corbett, Superintendent Hite and unelected School Reform Commission members have turned their backs on schools and children by manufacturing a crisis to score political points.

And children and teachers are paying the price.

Dennis Dorfman, a school counselor who was recently pressured out of his position at the Alternative Middle Years (AMY) at James Martin School after a 34-year career, described how his school was dealing with the recent death of a student without a full-time school counselor in place for the fall. He has been volunteering his services at AMY in the first few days, but that is no substitute for having this vital service in place, he told reporters at the press conference. "It's a dangerous situation if counselors are not there," he warned.

At the event, PCAPS leaders also announced "Full Funding Fridays," a new campaign that would call on City Council members and other elected officials to fully fund schools. The campaign encourages parents, students and teachers to participate by wearing buttons, changing their profile pictures on social media, and participating in rallies every Friday at different schools across Philadelphia—refusing to let policymakers move full funding for schools off the front burner.

After the press conference (watch video highlights), activists underscored their determination by storming into the first fall session of the City Council and chanting "Fund our schools" and "We'll be back!"

"We parents and community members are telling our elected officials that our children deserve more," said Kia Hinton, one of the coalition leaders.

"It's disgusting that parents and activists have to be out in the streets calling on elected people to do what they should do," said Weingarten. Without full funding for Philadelphia schools, "what we are saying to our children is: You do not count."

[Mike Rose/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

September 13, 2013