Surviving my first week: “This school year will be a marathon”

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. (Photo NBC10)

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162(2)I was not enthusiastic about the start of this school year. I am well aware of the lack of funding and staffing in District schools. All last spring, I made my calls, sat in City Council, traveled to Harrisburg, helped to educate others, and worked with great organizations to advocate for full funding of Philadelphia’s schools.

As the September 9th opening approached, our family had a lot of concerns not just about academics but even issues of basic safety as our schools opened with less staffing and programs than ever. In fact, I had wondered whether I would even send my kids to school in the first week. I had been a vocal advocate for school not opening unless all schools were appropriately funded and staffed. When my work told me that I could have the week off, I decided to take the week and volunteer at school. At least I could feel more secure sending my children to school.

Our school, C.W. Henry Elementary School, is a great and wonderful example of public education success. We are lucky to have dedicated teachers and an experienced dynamic principal. Our principal was able to purchase noon time aides with the little bit of money she was given.

We started this year missing only two staff from the previous year, but, unfortunately, these two staff were our vitally important guidance counselor and gifted support teacher.  Our class sizes have become very large. The budget did not allow for workbooks so teachers have to copy all materials – as long as the copiers are working.

The first days were hectic, mainly because many people came in the first few days to register their children (a reason why summertime staffing is so important). The teachers, principal and secretaries moved at a breakneck pace trying to get everything done. There was a sense of urgency and exasperation. The whole building seemed to be edgy, though I’m sure the children felt none of it. Caring teachers comforted anxious new students. Everyone seemed to be pitching in to help. I was one of the two parent volunteers that I saw that week. I worked on transportation issues, making copies, supervising recess, and even walking students to class.

Throughout the first week, I learned of difficulties in other district schools:

  • Central High School reported early class sizes ranging from 45 to 60-plus students in a class with little relief expected from the district until mid-October. There is something very wrong with the District writing off the first six weeks of school while letting children sit in such overcrowded classes.
  • There are 100 split grades all across the district. This is when two grades are combined with one teacher simply to save money. The problem is that the teacher is often surprised and unprepared to handle combined grades and the students in both grades suffer as a result.
  • Central’s $4.5 million dollar library is closed because there is no librarian. In fact according to the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, there are only twelve librarians in the entire School District of Philadelphia. School libraries from Central to Masterman to Willard to Powel Elementaries are now closed. C.W. Henry doesn’t have this issue because our library space was turned into a cafeteria last year.
  • Guidance counselors may be technically present in schools, but only in terms of what’s legally on paper. Schools under 600 students – like C.W. Henry – do not have a full-time counselor. Instead, we share a counselor with seven or eight other schools, a situation that results in one counselor serving anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 students.
  • There is no contingency plan for assisting parents with the high school and college admission process. The District has even canceled the high school expo.
  • Countless students have faced tragedies all over the school district, and are not getting appropriate counseling and service. At one school, a student and his father drowned the weekend before school started but the school had no guidance counselor. Instead a former counselor volunteered services to deal with the grief or coping of the students.
  • The Walksafe program, which was meant to provide safe passage for the 9,000 students transferring to new schools after the closure of 24 schools across the city, has been a complete debacle. The City promised 260 volunteers but multiple schools reported few or zero volunteers in the first days. Children and parents from closed schools had to find their own way to their receiving schools. Watch this video about what parents have to deal with in West Philadelphia.
  • In the second week of school, an elementary aged student was sexually assaulted on his walk to school.

In situations like this, people act in sometimes irrational ways. I have heard that some principals are informing their staff not to tell parents of any problems or difficulties. I have heard complaints that students in special education are not being mainstreamed according to their IEPs. The District claims that it will train principals and school staff to administer medications, yet I have not heard of any formal trainings that would make any parent feel comfortable that schools lack full-time nurses. I am deeply concerned about the number of children who will be sent into disciplinary tracts instead of having guidance that would be more appropriate simply because there are no staff who could or would fill that role.

Moreover, in classes where many younger and inexperienced teachers are left to deal with 30+ students, it takes only one distractive student to derail learning

It is clear to me that even with everyone working at peak capacity, there just aren’t enough people in the building to ensure the safety of our students and staff. The district is negligently underfunding and understaffing our schools which is sure to cause harm. There is no way that the present staffing can keep up this frantic pace.

Yet instead of addressing the core mission of schools, it appears that the district and mayor are looking for charity to educate students and provide necessary supplies. The few schools that are able to raise independent funds will get by – for a while. Those who cannot, will not. Although all students deserve and are obligated to have an adequate education, most will be lacking. 

This school year is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. I’m glad that the first week went relatively smoothly at our school. Families are working to fill the serious holes left by the district’s lack of planning, especially with transportation and safety. We are trying to cope with the lack of resources to help our children thrive. However, even with preparation and training, many of us will not finish this punishing marathon.

This district has not trained or prepared for this year. We simply can’t afford any child to fail due to administrative negligence. It is absolutely unacceptable.

Robin Roberts is the mother of three children at C.W. Henry Elementary School and is past president of the C.W. Henry Home and School Association. She is a core member of the Parents United leadership collective. 

One thought on “Surviving my first week: “This school year will be a marathon”

  1. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and a willingness to act in its defense.

    These words (attributed to a number of folks…) are never more true than now. There are forces among us who are working very, very hard to destroy public education. We must continue to fight, from multiple fronts, to ensure that public schooling not only survives, but thrives.

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