Amid historic budget cuts and thousands of staff layoffs, students in the Philadelphia School District had a very unusual first week.
Even with $50 million in remedial aid from the city of Philadelphia, the school system is millions of dollars short of being able to meet its obligations this year — and that has forced schools to make cuts to staff and extracurricular programs, increase class sizes and in some cases, eliminate student resources like libraries and supplies.
At Lea Elementary — which partners with Penn to offer certain student programming and staff training — the cuts are already hitting crucial resources.
“The biggest impact is personnel,” Caroline Watts, the director of Penn’s Lea partnership, said. “District-wide, there were thousands laid off.”
The unpredictable budget forced the school to lay off many staff members over the summer, some of whom it has been able to rehire as the school year begins. But in some cases, Lea was unable to secure the same staff members as last year.
“We were able to start school with every classroom staffed,” Watts said. “But we lost some people who we would have wanted to return.”
Stop-gap funding secured over the summer allowed Lea to bring back its counselor — all 270 district counselors were laid off over the summer — but some schools were not as lucky. Schools with fewer than 600 students will remain without a counselor, according to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
One major consequence of the funding cuts has been outside of the classroom. Unlike in years past, there is very little to no funding for extracurricular activities, said Justin Ennis, executive director of After School Activities Partnerships. In many cases, teachers’ aides who used to lead after-school programs were those the school chose to lay off.
“They were the first people to be let go,” he said. “And in many cases these were some of our best club leaders.”
In the absence of after-school programming, many students will miss out on an important aspect of the school community, he added.
“Unsupervised kids after school is already a serious problem for the city — it’s part of our achievement gap and it’s part of public safety and public health,” Ennis said. “They miss out on the academic and social benefits of after-school programming, but then you also have unsupervised kids exposed to a greater number of risks.”
Most teachers are now forced to volunteer their time to keep their extracurriculars in place. Klint Kanopka, who teaches physics and leads the debate program at Academy at Palumbo, has lost the small stipend he used to receive for working with students after school
“Overall the entire school morale has depleted, and that’s spilling over into the extracurriculars,” Kanopka said. “It’s just a demoralizing time to be a teacher.”
The debate team now pays for many supplies, such as printing, out of pocket. Kanopka predicts that while many teachers are volunteering their time this semester, the model is not sustainable in the long term.
“Teachers are going to say, ‘Well, I don’t have as much time now. Do I do the thing I’ve been volunteering for, or do the work that I’m getting paid for and am required to do?’”
Watts shared a similar sentiment about the consequences of the funding gap on years to come.
“This is unprecedented, and I think it’s unprecedented nationally,” she said. “I think that what Philadelphia’s going forreally hasn’t been seen in a district of this size and a city of this prominence. We have to address this in the long term.”
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