A MATTER OF GRAVITY: Klint Kanopka is determined to give his physics students at Academy at Palumbo a top-notch education. But that means spending hundreds of dollars out of pocket on lab supplies.
The day before school started this month, Anissa Weinraub got the email she’d been waiting for all summer: She had been re-hired by the Philadelphia School District.
Then, panic set in. She had four hours to meet her new colleagues at Heston School in West Philly, find her classroom and locate the cafeteria “so I could pretend like I knew where things were [and] how the school functioned.” And then she went to Staples and Target and spent nearly $500 on copy paper, computer cords and other items just to get her classroom up and running.
She already knows what she’ll be requesting from friends and family for her birthday: Schoolbooks and paper.
This school year, teachers who returned to work on an expired contract, and to schools running without librarians or sufficient counselors, secretaries and nurses, say they’re paying more than ever out of pocket and taking on more extra work than ever before. They get $100 from the School District each year in reimbursements. These days, they say, that doesn’t begin to cover their costs.
“There’s never been a time when we’ve had everything we’ve needed, but it’s gotten really tight in the last couple years,” says Daniel Meier, social-studies department chairman at Northeast High. “Budget cuts have been really taking hold. They’ve become bigger and bigger, and I’ve been spending more and more, as we’re not provided with many of the things we used to be provided with.”
City Paper surveyed a dozen teachers at various schools and grade levels around the city. They spent or planned to spend an average of $500, conservatively (that doesn’t include gifts from friends or family, teaching-innovation grants or donations collected through websites like DonorsChoose.org). If all of Philly’s 15,000 teachers spent that much, that would add up to an unreimbursed $6 million per year.
Earlier this month, Mayor Nutter announced the launch of a United Way-administered Educational Supplies Fund, to which the city pledged $200,000 toward a goal of raising $500,000 by Oct. 15. It’s not yet clear how that money will be awarded, but it will be shared among District schools, charters and Archdiocesan schools.
Some teachers, like Weinraub, spent money just to ensure their classrooms were functional. But in high-poverty schools, the needs are even more basic. For Ray Porreca — who’s already paid $200 for school supplies — the school year at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences means endless small expenses. He says he takes those on gladly. “I run to Wawa to get food for kids who haven’t had breakfast. I buy magazines like Sports Illustrated or ESPN for kids to try and get them reading. I try to pay for field trips when I can for kids who wouldn’t get to go otherwise. I’ve bought kids yearbooks, paid for the eighth-grade dance and graduation, art supplies.”
At Academy at Palumbo in Bella Vista, Klint Kanopka is worried about the big picture: How can he give his students a top-notch education in physics without lab supplies? He can’t. So, he spent $163 before school started and will spend between $500 and $800 more on materials — “And that’s assuming I don’t get any great inspiration.” He also expects to run a couple of fundraising projects on DonorsChoose.org.
“A good science education is so much based around having access to supplies,” he says. “I’m not going to sacrifice the quality of what I do in the classroom. I don’t eat fancy food or live in a nice house. I don’t spend money on other things. I’ve really pared down my expenses so I can have money to do innovative teaching stuff.”
He’s also sacrificed a little dignity: Last year, he let a student shave off his beard into “a goofy mustache” as part of a fundraiser. The science department, he says, “has no operating budget.” He says administrators haven’t really offered advice as to how to proceed. “It’s a conversation that a lot of administrators aren’t having, because it’s a brief and upsetting conversation.”
Like many other young teachers, he says he’s not sure whether he can stay in the Philly School District over the long term.
“It’s insane and unsustainable,” he says. “It’s like teaching in a war zone. I’ve got the city waging war on me. I’ve got the state waging war on me.”
Kanopka also coaches the school’s debate team. Extracurricular pay for those who oversee clubs was never much, but this year teachers have been told that it’s gone altogether. There’s no money for transportation to tournaments, either. Kanopka says he’ll have to figure it out: “I’ve got kids that are banking on debate to get them into colleges that are slightly out of their reach otherwise.”
It’s a similar situation for Galeet Cohen, who teaches biology and advanced placement environmental science, and sponsors several clubs at Central High School. She started the school year by shelling out $171, and spends nearly $800 per year on expendable lab supplies. She and a colleague share 20 laptops they won through a grant in 2007, but the batteries have since died; they’ve been running DonorsChoose campaigns to replace them.
Cohen says she’s “succumbed” to the pull of extra work, too: helping organize student records, since the school is short on secretaries, and set up the computer lab, since the IT person is gone. “It’s the usual tension between wanting everything to run smoothly for my students, and not wanting to prove positions unnecessary in the eyes of the state.”
Department chairs may be feeling the crunch even more. At Northeast, Meier went from 28 teachers to 24. He and other department chairs are teaching extra classes as a result, so they have less time for teacher support. They’re also picking up work that used to fall to counselors; at Northeast, there’s only one counselor to serve 3,000 students.
He says staff have been pulling together — but that they can’t keep it up. And there are things they can’t do, like fill in for the laid-off librarian. For Meier, the school library, sitting dark and locked throughout the school day, has become a surreal emblem of what’s at stake.
The library is also closed at Academy at Palumbo, where English teacher Meghan Donnelly spent $900 last year. She spent $300 and ran a $500 DonorsChoose campaign just to start the current school year with everything she needed and to make her classroom a welcoming place.
But on the first day of school there was a hitch: “All four of our copiers were also down. No paper, none of the copiers were working, no library, no computer lab.”
She’s used to back-to-school panic; last year, there was a larger-than-expected freshman class, so she went to Barnes & Noble and spent $85 on additional copies of Elie Wiesel’s Night.
The receipts go on and on: Angela Chan at Taggart Elementary spent $530 on school supplies, toner for a printer she bought rather than deal with the copy-machine wars and school clothes for a student. Theresa Lord, a social-studies teacher and reading specialist, spent more than $500 — not to mention the $700 in monthly student-loan payments from degrees in reading and English-language education she sought because, she says, “many of my kids needed help.” A teacher at Juniata Park Academy who didn’t want to be named says he’ll spend $1,000, and is raising $1,500 more for a classroom library.
Donnelly is proud of what she and other teachers accomplish. But she worries the state will take all this as an affirmation.
“I imagine that as long as teachers keep being willing to spend their own money, they’ll just cut more and more,” she says. “They’re taking advantage of the fact that we love our kids, we love our job. We’re willing to stay until 5 or 6 at night and spend hundreds of dollars of our own money. It’s like they want to see how little they can get away with.”
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