Back to School: It’s so much worse than you think

Retired teacher Barbara Dowdall and friend at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They had attended the original march as teenagers.
Sign of retired teacher Barbara Dowdall (left, with friend) at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. They had both attended the march together as teenagers.

“Philadelphia, Mississippi 1963: No black children allowed in libraries

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2013: No school libraries”


[This post has been updated: Check our Know Your Rights page to learn how to file a complaint]

On Tuesday, dozens of parents came out to District headquarters to finally gain some answers to rumors, questions and fears surrounding the first day of school. Our parent partners at the Philadelphia Home and School Council had called an emergency meeting with Supt. William Hite to address parents’ back to school concerns. To many people’s surprise and outrage, the Superintendent stayed for less than a half hour, answered barely a fraction of the questions people had, and, offered no other staff (other than one staff person from Specialized Services) equipped to handle parents’ questions and concerns. At first, it seemed like just another example of marginalizing parents. But in reality, it confirmed what we must know by now.

The District doesn’t have the answers.

Parent engagement not parent enragement2
Parent Maureen Fratantoni with her sign: Parent Engagement NOT Parent Enragement!

It’s not like Supt. Hite was rude. Far from it. He’s among the most individually personable superintendents this District has had.  There were individual gains for some schools. The Superintendent took down notes from one parent at Bache Martin upset that her principal had made four requests for additional desks for the school – all of which had gone unanswered. He made a visit to the school the very next day as well. That’s great for Bache Martin’s desk issue – but what about the rest of our concerns?

Take a look at just a sample of the dozens of inquiries parents submitted to Dr. Hite:

  1. How will IEP/ evaluations be coordinated for schools with no counselors?
  2. Will there be enough NTAs to monitor before school, after school, lunch and class transition times?
  3. What were Dr. Hite’s criteria for determining that it is okay to open the schools under current staffing levels? With insufficient counselors and Asst. principals, many emotional and behavioral issues will go unaddressed. Many principals feel they are unequipped to educate. What is Dr. Hite’s answer?
  4. What is the safety plan for schools open Monday 9/9/13?
  5. How will the roving counselors administer the IEP process? Will we get a dedicated counselor from this roving pool? How will this meet my son’s legally required services?
  6. How will the HS application process work without a counselor?
  7. My son’s HS will have classes of over 40 students. Why can’t additional teachers be hired now versus shuffling the kids throughout Sept.  Are you just willing to write off the first month and half of the school year?
  8. Will the teachers be trained to administer medicine if the nurse isn’t at the school?
  9. What are the priorities (positions) that will hired back if additional funding comes available?
  10. Has the district reversed its policy on split grades (putting two grades with one teacher to save money) and how do you justify reversing a policy that has been in place to protect children since Vallas years?
  11. What was the formula the District used to determine school money beyond the allotted staff? For example, Powel school received an alleged $35,000 for 280 students. How was this allotment determined and what was the equity formula used?
  12. Do you work for the SRC, Governor, Mayor, or us (parents) or for our children? Who is your customer? Is quality education important?

More than 60 questions were submitted to the District; the District is supposed to email us back responses. But emails are not a plan, and with the start of school right around the corner, you have to wonder if the top District leadership even grasps how serious the situation is.

School Safety: AWOL from the District to City Hall

Say what you will about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who closed nearly 50 Chicago schools last spring. In June, the Mayor announced he would be investing $15 million into the city’s Safe Passage program, hiring 1200 workers, allegedly fixing broken streetlights and repairing sidewalks, and coordinating Chicago’s school opening with police escorts. I don’t say this to praise a Mayor who mercilessly and recklessly executed the largest school closing in U.S. history. I mention it because when you have dramatic school closings and young children navigating unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous neighborhoods for the first time, this is the LEAST you do.

Not so for Philly.

It’s only safe because it’s on paper!

Instead, parents with a computer, printer, internet access, and who can read English and have prior knowledge on how to navigate the District’s website can download “recommended walk routes” like this (left) 1.2 mile suggestion on getting from Fairhill Elementary to Clemente.

[Update] On the Friday before school started, a parent leader called the Walk Safe Philadelphia contact number – the city office responsible for ensuring safe routes between closing schools and receiving schools – to request information on the number of volunteers, crossing guards and placement of staff on the route between two closing schools. The contact person said he had not been provided with any information and had nothing available. Subsequent phone calls went to voicemail.

This week, the District held a press conference to unveil “SEPTA travel tips!” and present a complimentary list of bus and trolley lines running between closed schools and assorted receiving schools to . . .  the media, NOT parents, the media. With all due respect to SEPTA, travel tips are what you give to vacationers. It’s not how you handle the District’s most massive school mergers effort less than a week before school starts.

Perhaps the most outrageous moment of last night’s meeting for me occurred when Lea Home and School president Maurice Jones raised the question of why the parents at Wilson and Lea have yet to receive a specific safety plan after more than four months of requests. District spokesperson Evelyn Sample Oates glibly assured him she had personally viewed Lea’s plan and “it was wonderful.” She said she’d email it to him, requesting that he please distribute it to other concerned parents.

48 hours later, guess what. He’s still waiting. [Update: He’s still waiting as of Friday evening.]

Could we expect differently? Yes of course we should. WHY is the City not taking charge of staffing and guaranteeing safe passage with the School District? WHERE is the District’s Chief Safety Officer Cynthia Dorsey who has been completely AWOL in this whole school safety process? WHAT is the role of the Philadelphia police in monitoring hot spots and ensuring that officers don’t change shifts during key parts of the school day? WHO thinks the Mayor’s call for Town Watch volunteers to, you know, help a kid out actually translates into serious attention to safety for vulnerable children?

School counselors and students’ emotional needs

There was no question that the lack of school counselors was among the most resonant issues for parents all across the board. The District’s plan to only give full time counselors and only one! to schools larger than 600 students means that 60% of all schools – including half of all the high schools – won’t have a full time counselor. Yesterday District staff said they were informed that for schools smaller than 600 students, counselors will be shared among seven schools – an unfathomable 1 to 3,000 student ratio. Did I mention that announcement was made yesterday? 

Immediately Teacher Action Group-Philly tweeted out a page from the District’s School Operations handbook from the section on how to handle potential suicide threats in schools.

Graphic: Teacher Action Group-Philadelphia via Twitter
Graphic: Teacher Action Group-Philadelphia via Twitter

As you can tell, with the exception of the principal, it appears none of the members of the “emergency response team” are guaranteed full time members of a school staff anymore. The utter insanity of this becomes even more clear when you consider the District just passed a ground-breaking anti-bias and harassment policy requiring staff to stop, report and thoroughly investigate all incidents of bullying and/or harassment in school. As someone who personally worked on the policy, it now seems almost a mockery when juxtaposed against school staffing levels today.

Of course we haven’t even touched academics.

[Update] This high school teacher tweeted us about 48 students on her roster: 48!

On Friday the Public School Notebook reported 100 split grade classes across the district – a policy Parents United for Public Education among others had been successful in eliminating due to its recognized pedagogical failure.

After explaining that 30% of the districts changes schools annually (how is that relevant?), District spokesperson Fernando Gallard had this to say:

“This is particularly a difficult financial situation we’re in, and we want to make sure we wait and see how many students are in a classroom before we hire any more teachers.”

Make sure we wait for what exactly? For students to drop out? For them to transfer into charters? It’s impossible to look at this cold reaction and not have it sink in that what we’re witnessing is not a District in its death throes but one where the devastating blows are purposefully and ruthlessly self-inflicted. This isn’t “living within your means.” It’s a deliberate abdication of your central mission.

My son enters ninth grade this year. His grade cohort represents the first group of students mandated to take the ten Keystone exams required for graduation.  It doesn’t matter that his school for the first time this year cancelled ninth grade orientation due to the chaos and lack of support in the district. It doesn’t matter that honors classes have been canned, or that he has little likelihood of getting a guidance counselor’s time to understand his options. It doesn’t matter that his teachers have endured a bruising summer of yo-yo employment and vilifying rhetoric and already feel exhausted at the start of the year. No, he’s the one whose failure confirms the misery of this system or whose success makes it all worthwhile. It’s a no-win situation.

Parent Robin Roberts at City Hall in the spring worked to stop the cuts we see in classrooms this fall.
Parent Robin Roberts at City Hall in the spring worked to stop the cuts we see in classrooms this fall.


This is what a parent emailed me yesterday morning after hearing that her school would share one guidance counselor among seven high needs schools.

“This is totally UNACCEPTABLE and inhumane, what planet are these so called leaders at 440 are coming from because they and those so called politicians just do not get it.  I feel so frustrated right now.  I cannot believe we are in America fighting for the right to even a basic education, much less a quality one. “

After talking and hearing from so many parents over this summer, there’s no question that most of us feel the District is in no shape to open schools on Monday. But yet, the doors will open and 138,000 children will walk through those doors – and every single one deserves our vigilance.

So as parents, what do we do next? It’s worth noting that despite all the District cutbacks, there’s one place where investments have soared – legal consulting fees. How indicative is that of how far the District has strayed from its educational mission? Even its own team doesn’t believe in its product.

I say we give those law firms their money’s worth. Every single parent whose child has an IEP should walk in on the first day of school and demand the appropriate services according to their child’s need. Every single parent should be ready to file a complaint with the state department of education about a failure to provide a “thorough and efficient education.” It is a pathetic and sad day when courts and their minimum baselines become the standard we seek, but this is where the Governor, Mayor, School Reform Commission, District leadership, and the hovering vultures of the education “reform” movement have driven us.

We cannot enter this year defeated and accepting of such neglect. Defiance, resistance and strategic organizing must be necessary responses to this catastrophic failure.

[UPDATE: Know Your Rights Toolkit! Get information on your legal rights and how to file a complaint here.]

Parents United for Public Education/Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia

Take action for kids: Know Your Rights seminar for parents

Thurs., Sept. 5: 5:30-7 p.m.

United Way Building, 17th & Parkway


23 thoughts on “Back to School: It’s so much worse than you think

  1. Thank you for advocating for the children of this school system. You are tireless and eloquent. One of our new history teachers was a counselor in the system since 1979. Now she is teaching history for the first time. Meanwhile we lost one of our best history teachers to a charter – she was one of those laid off. There are still no librarians either. How will students have the resources to write a research paper, let alone learn how to use what our library has to offer. It is a shameless waste of talent across the board. This is total insanity. Thank you for your comittment to public education. I, a teacher, salute you!

  2. I think this article is great. I just have one thing to add. Counselors do not have anything to do with iep writing unless the child needs counseling services. They may handle a few tasks like an inter agency meeting or transportation but nothing more. Special education teams write an iep with a special education certified teacher. Our schools do need counselors but we need them to do their job not write Ieps.

      1. Helen, I attended a training to monitor schools for SpEd compliance. I would be happy to give a seminar with information to parents , so that they know the guidelines and what to do if they are not followed!!! I have all documentation and spreadsheets and understand the process. And am retired from SDP, so no “write ups” LOL. I am at your service!!!

        1. Thank you. We are working closely with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia on special ed compliance, but as we go out to schools and meet with parents directly, this would be a great thing to work together on.

  3. Thanks for posting my new saying-PARENT ENGAGEMENT NOT PARENT ENRAGEMENT. I was disappointed that my very important question about the LeGare process ,for my special needs child was answered by a specialty services person who answered “the team of teachers could put him through the process”. I always knew that a counselor was involved in this process. The counselor always took the lead and we don’t have a counselor in our school yet. We will have a roving one. I was told by her, that a counselor is not necessary , legally speaking. So, I am going to check this out at the meeting tonight at PILCOP. Also, my last name was spelled incorrectly on the caption above.It is Fratantoni.

  4. In addition, I am Home and School President at Nebinger and other Austistic support parents are asking me about the LeGare process and how that is going to work for transitioning to High School. I need the correct answers because we have a few AS students graduating this year. This way I can share it with them at our monthly parent support group. Hopefully, we will get the answers soon because the process is set to begin in September and the paperwork has to be in by End of October or beginning of November.

  5. Thank you. As a parent and concerned public school teacher in Philadelphia, I have been following the school reform movement, both nationally and locally. I am sure you know, there are many people in education from around the country who host excellent blogs that facilitate informed discussion and debate. Yours being one them.

    The media often seems asleep at the wheel, or, possibly, constrained by their owners, from providing informed discussion about one of the most significant public policy changes in our education system, that I am aware of. This being the privatization of public education.

    You may already know that Philadelphia charter schools received over 7 hundred million dollars from the school budget last year ( I have not heard of any loosing their guidance councilors, or their smaller classroom sizes ). You may also know that the most recent Stanford Credo study comparing public and charter schools, establishes no significant difference in performance between the two. This according to the National Education Policy Center’s peer review of the study. This begs the question; are charter schools a better alternative to well funded public schools?

    So many of the policies guiding education reform are underwritten and supported by those who stand to gain, like hedge-fund managers, Rupert Murdoch styled billionaires, the industrial complex built up around curriculum and assessment, and the many charter chain operators. They are all aligned to push data driven, high stakes testing, while privatizing education with very little awareness, or, apparent, concern for the real implications that the free market has on public education.

    I support your appeal for parents to push back and demand for an equitable and qualitative public education.

  6. The lifetraumas which schoolchildren are experiencing in North Philly and all over the city are jawdropping, if you invest the time in “knowing” the children, and understanding trauma. Teachers, Nurses, Counselors, and NTAs are the “front line” in many of these kids’ lives. Trauma-informed practice is essential.

    For perspective, in wealthy suburbs the CDC estimates 20%+ experience 3 or more “Adverse” events, which correlates with horrible life outcomes, based on data from a massive, 17,000 person study over a long period of years.

    My unscientific observation in my own classroom over past 3 years is that the North Philly % is closer to 60% to 70%. a Among the children in my classroom alone there were two suicide attempts and two suicide threats from four different 7 and 8 yearold boys. At that age ! ? ! Sad, devastating . . Astonshing that the SDP “support plan” for children who need significant life support, so education can become a priority are the children who will now share “part” of a Counselor or Nurse, if they happen to have ONE in their building(as part of 800+ person caseload). It borders on criminal, for those adults who have gotten their education to deny crucial services to those (our) defenseless children who need them the most.

    Shockingly UNSAFE to open . . .

  7. For those who aren’t aware, Teachers and other adults in a school setting who are aware of a specific suicide threat, are accountable (including loss of certification) for not reporting and intervening in a threat of suicide situation.

    Those from the SRC, and on down, who should understand the dynamics of childhood trauma, need to be held accountable(legally) for either their ignorance (if they are not educated about the reality of contextual trauma). Conversely, there is also legal accountability for their inaction if they are aware and they still do nothing but exacerbate the reality of the kids’ experience, by removing crucial supports.

    It is unconscionable for those same adults (from SRC, and on down) to risk horrific, predictable life outcomes for the kids they are hired to educate.

    If they are qualified for the positions they hold, then they ARE accountable for BOTH having the knowledge AND acting upon it, just like Teachers.

  8. Parents can make a huge statement by not sending their children to school on
    September 9. Any students that go to school could make a huge statement by
    not entering schools and standing outside on September 9 in protest. All students and
    parents should stand hand in hand in protest against the political and district bullies
    who have no regard for the education and personal welfare of those they were
    hired to serve!!! The school district is penny wise and dollar foolish, opening
    themselves up for lawsuits galore!!!

  9. More than “worse”: The School District Plan is morally wrong. The “leaders” and the plan are demeaning to us and our children. The SRC, the Governor and William Hite are uncaringly focussed on politics and privatizing education. It’s not just underfunded it’s Injustice. The strangling of urban PUBLIC education is the civil rights issue of this generation.

  10. The children and families of this city deserve a quality education just as much as our neighbors in Lower Merion, Bensalem , Counsel Rock, etc. OUR children need MORE SUPPORT. This is blatant discrimination. This is unjust. I don’t understand how our leaders at the Federal and State level can allow this to continue.

  11. Thanks for working on this problem. How many thousand of parents are working on this problem or is it up to the government to bear the burden and cost of this?
    I would like to see what the responsibility level is with parents as a percentage of students as a whole.

    1. The burden and cost of what? Of public education? It’s written into the state constitution that the state will provide a “thorough and efficient” education for Philadelphia’s children. Since the School District has been under state control since 2001, then yes, it is the responsibility of the government, specifically the Governor and Mayor, to address this.

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