When Anissa Weinraub, an English teacher at Bartram High School in Southwest Philly, received a pink slip earlier this month, it was a familiar feeling.
“I’ve been laid off twice before, and force-transferred twice before, so I’ve been at five schools over the past seven years,” she says.
Weinraub is one of 3,859 teachers, counselors, secretaries, aides and assistant principals — almost 20 percent of the school workforce — laid off under the school district’s so-called “doomsday” budget.
While City Council members and state legislators continue their attempts to wring education funding out of everything from casino revenues to Medicaid expansion to cigarettes to tax deadbeats, school employees says that, to some degree, the damage is done. Many believe they’re looking at a worst-case scenario of that budget being realized, and a best-case scenario of a drastic and disruptive reshuffling of school staff as seniority re-hiring rules trigger reassignments, helter-skelter, across the district.
“I know people who maybe came into this as a second career, and they are phenomenal, who are going back into the private sphere. I know people that are going to apply to a charter. I know people who would not have retired, who are now,” says Weinraub, a member of the Teacher Action Group, which has been collecting these stories online at facesofthelayoffs.org. “We’re going to see a brain drain.”
Teachers say there’s not much information, but plenty of rumors — as to whether re-hiring will be done in groups or all at once, as to whether counselors’ jobs will be outsourced. The school district says it won’t decide anything before the June 30 budget deadline.
Last Friday afternoon, principal Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan was surveying the fallout in front of Andrew Jackson School, after the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a student-made mosaic that — through a Picasso Project grant from Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) and art education from the nonprofit COSACOSA Art at Large — is to wrap the school over five years.
Kaplan wasn’t sure if she’d be able to offer this program again next year — or, for that matter, if she could continue any of the grant-funded programs her administrative staff helped her bring to Jackson. The layoffs at Jackson included all the secretaries, counselors and aides, plus music and art teachers. Next year, Kaplan will be the only school employee not in a classroom. “It’s pretty decimating, I have to be honest with you, and frightening. How am I supposed to run a school and continue all the programs that we brought in?” Kaplan says. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”
Gretchen Walker of PCCY says grantee schools across the city have told her the same thing: They’re just not sure if they can participate next year. And the Picasso Project grant is not the only thing that may go to waste at Jackson. The school was awarded an instrumental-music program this past year, and the students had their “first and last” instrumental and choral music concert. As of next year, “I have the instruments, but I have no teacher,” Kaplan says.
And those are not even her most pressing worries. Her biggest concern? How to maintain the safe-school culture she’s created. “It worries me: These people have institutional knowledge that have been let go. Educating a child in a safe, happy environment is at risk right now.”
Elaine Duffey, a nurse at the Academy at Palumbo, says students are already feeling the impact. She observes it daily: “I’ve had a student with a panic attack [because her counselor was laid off]. This woman’s carried her for three years, through family problems. … Now this kid’s looking at her senior year. The person who would be writing her recommendations, the person who would be seeing her to completion — it’s like losing a parent.”
Bryan Sieber, a counselor who splits time between Creative and Performing Arts and Randolph Technical high schools, has a more direct term for what’s taking place: “It’s child abuse.”
Sieber was among hundreds of protesters who spilled onto Broad Street on Friday in front of Gov. Corbett’s Philly office. The layoff was his second in two years. “Sometimes it takes all year to establish the relationship with the child before they’re willing to disclose to you something in their lives that they’re dying to tell. And then we’re laid off, and shuffled around again — and it continues to create instability in the lives of kids who have no stability.”
Given those concerns, Sieber says he can’t imagine abandoning his students and looking for work.
Others say they have to be pragmatic.
Erica Catlin, who is losing her job teaching at Central High School — one of Philly education’s bright spots, now stripped down to only teachers and a principal — wants to hold out hope. But she isn’t sure she can. “We thought the sequester wasn’t going to happen, and there it is,” she says. The school district’s “doomsday” budget could become reality as well. “No one can give us any guarantees about getting reinstated. … The position we’re in is, the hiring season is already passed. So if you wait around, you might find yourself with no job at all.”
Tatiana Olmedo, a counselor at Central, says she also must undertake some heartrending personal calculus for herself and her family: “I have to figure out: Can I afford to live in the city? … Should we wait it out? Or do I just go ahead and look for employment somewhere else, even though that’s not where my passion is?” Even if funding is restored, she worries about the disruption of reshuffling. She’s been building trust at Central for 14 years. If she is reassigned, it’s back to zero. “Any time you go to a new school, it takes you a good two or three years to develop relationships with the students … to show them how much you care.”
In higher-need schools, the disruption could be even greater. Consider Mirta Scheffer, a 23-year counselor at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and its predecessor, Central East. She spoke with a reporter by phone, but was interrupted. When she called back, she explained that two students had arrived at her office hurt. Since the school lost its nurse to previous cuts, she had to “play nurse.”
That’s not her only extra role: In this high-need neighborhood, she connects hungry kids with food, and homeless kids with transportation, clothing and services. She also translates for their Spanish-speaking parents. “We sometimes feel like we have become the social-services hub, where the parents can come for help,” she says. At home, her students’ lives are fraught with instability. Now, it’s the same at school. “As I see what happens in the state and at the city level, I’m losing hope. I just see a long summer ahead without knowing which way it’s going to happen.”
As for Kaplan, the principal, she knows next year will be a challenge no matter what the funding situation. “A lot of people have already left the district,” she says. “Others are seeking employment elsewhere because it’s so traumatizing every year to keep going through this. It makes me want to question what value we have on education.”
As worried as they are for their students, teachers like Weinraub are equally angry at the politicians they feel are letting them take the hit for a manufactured funding crisis. Talk of “shared sacrifice” — as in the $133 million in concessions being asked of the teachers — rankles when the state is looking at corporate tax breaks and rock-bottom shale-drilling fees. Even if her job is saved, “I’m sure I would just be in some other school where I would build up relationships for another year and then transfer somewhere else,” Weinraub says. “There’s ripple effects and fallout that’s major in those kids’ lives. When you start destabilizing schools, you destabilize communities.”
ALSO FROM THIS ISSUE:
- Daniel Denvir on why teachers deserve some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
- UPenn quietly launches a partnership with Henry C. Lea Elementary.
- And if all this news is getting you down, check out Bell Curve.
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