Students transition during the first day of school at South Philadelphia High School on Monday. About 190,000 students are going back to class Monday in Philadelphia, where parents say severe staffing cuts have created an aura of uncertainty around the new academic year.
PHILADELPHIA — The city’s struggling public schools opened a new term Monday with larger classes and smaller staffs, leaving many to wonder how the nearly broke district will fare over the coming year.
Superintendent William Hite made the rounds at several buildings to greet students and employees. While contending that Philadelphia’s schools were prepared to open, he also acknowledged how much they were missing.
“We still want guidance services in every school,” Hite said. “We need a lot more assistant principals. We need a lot more teachers. ... We need music the full year. We need sports the full year.”
The morning bell capped off weeks of turmoil in one of the nation’s largest districts, as school supporters spent the summer staging rallies and pleading with city and state officials for badly needed funds. Hite even threatened to delay opening day if he didn’t get $50 million to rehire sufficient staff.
Earlier this year, the cash-strapped system laid off nearly 3,800 workers — from assistant principals to secretaries — as rising labor costs, cuts in state aid and charter school growth helped create a $304 million spending gap.
The district later recouped about $33 million in costs and, with the mayor’s promise last month of an extra $50 million, was able to rehire about 1,650 employees. Even so, students will get music and sports programs only for the fall semester.
One of the biggest issues is the reduction in guidance counselors. More than half remain laid off, a major concern in a system filled with immigrants, low-income students and children from unstable homes, not to mention concerns about bullying.
The full-time counselor at C.W. Henry Elementary School has been replaced by a roving counselor who will visit the building for just three hours each week.
“That’s simply not good enough,” said Robin Roberts, who has three children at the school.
At Bodine High School, teacher Kate Reber said college-bound seniors now share a single adviser with 3,500 students across several schools.
“I don’t know who’s going to write their college counselor recommendations,” Reber said.
Staff at Feltonville Intermediate School posted a list of resources they are missing, including a counselor, an assistant principal, several teachers and 45 minutes of math instruction per day.
And at South Philadelphia High School, where the superintendent ate lunch with a group of students on Monday, classrooms were a tight squeeze. On paper, about a dozen classes had more than 33 students, and some had more than 40, Principal Otis Hackney said. However, he noted actual attendance is hard to judge until at least a week into school.
The crowding comes as the building absorbs hundreds of students from Bok High School, one of 24 schools closed in June as the district sought to economize. Some closures mean longer walks for young children, another source of anxiety; others are bringing together students from rival neighborhoods.
The district tried to ease tensions among Bok and South Philly teens by sending about a dozen on a summertime outdoor retreat. Still, senior Devon Henderson said he expects trouble.
“There’s no telling what could happen,” he said.
Meanwhile, education advocates are urging parents to document any problems in official complaints. They want to show the state, which supplies the bulk of the district’s funding, that the dearth of resources violates Pennsylvania’s mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient” education.
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