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Philadelphia starts the year with staffing shortages and charter closure

Philadelphia students are returning to school on Monday in the face of an abrupt charter school closure and continuing teacher vacations that will force some district officials to spend at least a few days covering classrooms.

However, district officials said on Friday they had reached an agreement to avert a strike with 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents bus drivers, guards, cleaners and other workers. ‘maintenance. The union’s contract is due to expire at midnight on August 31. The union authorized a strike vote last week.

Issues in the contract talks included pay, safe conditions in schools, and the training members receive to deal with potentially dangerous incidents in schools.

The workers had won the support of city officials, including council member Helen Gym, who said in a statement that it was ‘unconscionable that members of SEIU 32BJ are held to the lowest wage standards in the city. at a time when maintenance workers and building engineers are among the most vacant positions within the school district.”

The agreement must be approved by the School Board at its next meeting.

The district’s latest staffing update at the August regular school board meeting indicated that about 70 percent of building engineer positions were filled.

The board of directors decides the fate of two “Renaissance” charters

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Board of Education held a hastily scheduled special meeting Friday morning to adopt a plan for two charter schools, Daroff and Bluford, which were once operated by Universal Companies. Daroff will close immediately. Bluford will open a week late, September 6, and close at the end of the school year.

But hundreds of families who expected to attend Daroff found themselves scrambling just days before school opened.

“If I’m a parent, I feel the shock of this this morning,” said board member Lisa Salley, who voted against the resolution. “This is a real-time crisis happening right now for a significant number of children.”

Both schools were among the first district schools turned over to chartered organizations as part of the district’s Renaissance initiative, touted at the time as a strategy to dramatically improve student achievement.

But that improvement didn’t happen, and the board voted to revoke both charters in 2015. Universal continued to operate the schools while appealing the board’s decision to the state. When the state upheld the revocation in July, Universal ceased to operate the two schools, but their independent boards continued to try to operate them.

In recommending action, Biridiana Rodriguez of the district’s charter school office said schools are struggling to hire staff. At last count, Daroff had 25 vacancies and Bluford 17.

She said the charter school office is working with the families to “identify a solution and provide the least amount of disruption.” As Renaissance charters, the schools had catchment areas, meaning that for over a thousand students, they were the assigned neighborhood schools.

She and District Chief of Staff Alicia Prince said students assigned to Bluford can enroll there if they wish, and Daroff students can enroll at Bluford. But affected students from both schools also had the option of enrolling in nearby district schools, and officials also helped them find other charters that might have room.

District officials said they will be at the Haverford Avenue Public Library branch all weekend to help parents register their children. Parents can also register their children online.

After Friday’s meeting, council chair Joyce Wilkerson said “judicial process” dictated the last-minute nature of decision-making around the schools. Overall, she added, “it’s hard to defend the Renaissance program as a success.”

Superintendent Tony Watlington, who became the district’s top official in June, said he was “still in a learning phase” about Pennsylvania’s charter law and the Renaissance program in particular.

In public comments, members of the watchdog group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools pointed out that Universal received more than $700,000 in “management fees” to run the schools while its CEO received a salary of $246,000. as recently as 2019.

“The Renaissance schools have proven to be a massive and costly failure and the board knows it,” said APPS member Diane Payne.

Two other Renaissance charters, Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, formerly operated by the nonprofit ASPIRA, Inc., will open next week under the district’s control after a year-long transition process. Wilkerson said Bluford and Daroff will regain control of the district after this year.

Watlington hopes for 100% endowment, braces for less

Speaking of vacancies in the district, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the vacancies situation is “worse than any year I’ve had.”

Watlington and District Talent Manager Larissa Shambaugh say teaching positions are 97.4 per cent filled, leaving some 200 vacancies, meaning up to 6,000 students could be left without permanent teacher on the first day of school.

What 97% staffing means, Jordan said, is that in a middle school or high school, where teachers can teach five courses of English or social studies or science or math, “one teacher reaches 150 students per day. Percentages don’t give me a clear picture of what the staff looks like in a school.

In an interview at Wednesday’s “ringing the bell for PHL” ceremony at Citizens Bank Park, Watlington said he hoped staffing for teachers and counselors would reach 100% by first day of school. But if necessary, he said, other district workers who have the appropriate qualifications will be drafted in to work in the classrooms.

He also noted that the district installed air conditioners in 450 additional classrooms over the summer. The district is a “good steward” of available resources, he said.

Jordan and several teachers said that despite all these issues, they were looking forward to the most “normal” school year since the pandemic began. Since then, students and teachers have spent more than an entire school year online.

“I think the biggest challenge this year is just getting the kids back to normal,” said Dan Fitzsimmons, sixth grade teacher at Cramp Elementary School.

Gemayel Keyes will transition from being a paraprofessional at Spruance Elementary School in the North East to being a resident teacher, Keyes will co-teach a fourth grade class for a year before having his own class.

“I look forward to a school year where I am not only a teacher, but also a student, learning from the team of teachers around me so that we can work together for the betterment of children,” did he declare.

As for his thoughts on Watlington as the new district leader, “I think he has good intentions, I’ll wait and see what he does,” Keyes said.

This story has been updated to reflect the status of an agreement between the District of Philadelphia and the support staff union that would avert a strike.

Dale Mezzacappa is Senior Writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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