Any 4th graders going back to David Hensel’s class in Taggart Elementary School to retrieve something they forgot might have seen an odd sight last year: “Mr. Hensel” on his knees poking at a wall outlet with tweezers.
“I was trying to pull out the phone jacks,” Hensel said. “I was told there was only one person in the District who could do it. The Internet was down in my classroom all last year. It was really frustrating.”
While today’s news headlines talk of massive budget cuts making schools almost unrecognizable when they open, teachers and administrators at several schools say that the last two or three years are already an object lesson in what happens when schools try to operate with a skeleton staff.
George Metz’s family is all too familiar with school closings.
His stepson, Shyheim Saunders, 17, attended FitzSimons from 7th to 10th grade. When that got shuttered in 2012, he transferred to Roberts Vaux for 11th grade. Now, heading into his senior year in high school, Shyheim will switch once again, attending Benjamin Franklin High School due to the recent closing at Vaux.
That adds up to three schools in three years for Shyheim.
As South Philadelphia High School opens its doors this fall for the new school year, it is a dramatically different place than it was in June.
More than half the estimated 1,400 students enrolled by late August to begin classes in the building on Sept. 9 would have been enrolled at the nearby Bok Technical High School, if Bok had remained open.
Instead, Bok and 23 other schools were ordered shut down by the School Reform Commission this spring, as a cost-saving measure.
As a result, thousands of children are heading for new schools this fall, creating new opportunities for some and the danger of chaos and disruption for others, as administrators already overtaxed by the District’s recent draconian cutbacks work to cope with the transfers.
How did the School District get into such a financial mess?
The $304 million budget gap announced last winter didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the District has faced budget crises almost annually for decades.
The fundamental issue is that Philadelphia is a vast district, responsible for nearly 200,000 public school students in District and charter schools – many of them with special needs – and the city depends on outside funds from the state to cover most of its budget. School funding in Pennsylvania is heavily reliant on local property taxes, and communities with weak tax bases struggle. Unlike every other school board in the state, the School Reform Commission lacks the authority to levy taxes itself. Other problems: a lack of predictability in the level of state funding for schools, which plummeted in 2011, and the city’s inability to collect all the taxes it is owed.
Dimner Beeber Middle School was headed for extinction.
Since it was barely a quarter full and posted poor academic indicators, the District planned to close it and send a few hundred Beeber 7th and 8th graders to nearby Overbrook High School.
But for Raynae Bosley, a rising 8th grader, Beeber was working.
In 7th grade, she said, “all of the teachers didn’t give up on me and they kept getting me up to the next level.”
“I really didn’t want the school to be closed at all.”