A lesson in discontent

  • Amaya Tucker, 8, helps her mother and teachers during the protest.

  • Tommy McLaughlin holds the megaphone for Leianna Yancey.

  • Words of protest: Linda Gelfand (right) and Savannah Yancey, 5, hold up signs in front of Comly Elementary School in protest of the school funding cuts. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Irony wasn’t lost on more than a dozen Phil­adelphia pub­lic school teach­ers who demon­strated along­side dozens of stu­dents, par­ents and pub­lic edu­ca­tion ad­voc­ates out­side the Wat­son T. Comly School last Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, seek­ing more school fund­ing.

The rally fea­tured the usu­al fire-and-brim­stone speeches, bull­horn-driv­en chants and apo­ca­lyptic signs typ­ic­al of a grass­roots protest. Many early rush-hour mo­tor­ists along busy By­berry Road shouted words of en­cour­age­ment or simply honked their ap­prov­al.

Yet, none of the teach­ers felt se­cure enough to ac­tu­ally speak on the re­cord about their cause, fear­ing re­tali­ation by those who run their fin­an­cially dis­tressed school dis­trict.

“This is the kind of pres­sure and fear the dis­trict is put­ting us un­der,” said one teach­er, who spoke on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity.

She was afraid of be­ing laid off, trans­ferred to a less de­sir­able school or giv­en neg­at­ive per­form­ance re­views if she were to cri­ti­cize dis­trict man­age­ment pub­licly. An­oth­er teach­er said he had been in­struc­ted not to talk to news re­port­ers, al­though the Phil­adelphia Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers has en­cour­aged its mem­bers to take part in pub­lic demon­stra­tions at school sites.

Of­fi­cially, Comly’s Home and School As­so­ci­ation sponsored last Wed­nes­day’s protest. About 50 people par­ti­cip­ated in an hour­long ses­sion. 

“We’re here to sup­port the teach­ers,” said Marge Hue­ber, the home and school pres­id­ent.

Hue­ber’s son Liam, a fourth-grader, was more dir­ect, echo­ing the gen­er­al sen­ti­ment that pub­lic schools have been neg­lected by state and loc­al gov­ern­ments, and come un­der at­tack by the charter school move­ment and “big busi­ness.”

“I think some coun­tries don’t have pub­lic schools and they’re try­ing to do that here,” Liam said.

A fli­er dis­trib­uted by rep­res­ent­at­ives of the Phil­adelphia Co­ali­tion Ad­voc­at­ing for Pub­lic Schools al­leged that Comly lost one teach­er and three sup­port­ive ser­vices as­sist­ants due to dis­trictwide budget cuts this year. The school has about 20 teach­ers and more than 500 stu­dents. Fur­ther, it went without a full-time coun­selor for the first two months of the school year, ac­cord­ing to the fli­er.

Marge Hue­ber said that school has also lost fund­ing for equip­ment and sup­plies, such as in­ter­act­ive black­boards known as “smart boards.” The home and school raised enough money last year to buy five of the units at $3,500 each. The school paid for in­stall­a­tion at about $1,400 per unit.

This year, the par­ents group hopes to buy five more smart boards, but the school has no money for in­stall­a­tion. So par­ents will have to raise close to $25,000 through candy sales, a hol­i­day bazaar and oth­er activ­it­ies.

“The chil­dren really par­ti­cip­ate a lot with smart boards,” Hue­ber said. “So now it falls back on us. We have to raise the money.”

One teach­er said that short­ages in staff­ing and sup­plies have be­gun to “wear down” the fac­ulty, leav­ing them in “des­per­a­tion.” Teach­ers are work­ing un­der an ex­pired con­tract as their uni­on and the dis­trict try to ne­go­ti­ate a new deal. The dis­trict is ask­ing for mil­lions of dol­lars in give­backs from the uni­on. Even then, the dis­trict is pro­ject­ing a $400 mil­lion short­fall for the 2014-15 school year.

“I don’t think (people) know how dire it is un­less you’re in it,” one teach­er said.

Stu­dents also are feel­ing the pinch. Fifth-grader Lei­anna Yan­cey re­flec­ted an us vs. them sen­ti­ment in her pre­writ­ten speech to the demon­strat­ors.

They said I don’t need a nurse,” Yan­cey said. “They said I don’t need a coun­selor. They said I don’t need Ms. Sue, Ms. Marla, Ms. Daryll, Ms. Owens, Ms. Etkin, Ms. Betchel and all of the oth­er people who help us here at Comly. They said I don’t need sports of after-school activ­it­ies. They said I can learn with over 30 kids in my class. … They think I don’t have a voice. But they are wrong!”

Al­though or­gan­izers de­scribed the demon­stra­tion as non­polit­ic­al, many par­ti­cipants blamed Gov. Tom Corbett’s edu­ca­tion policies for un­der­fund­ing pub­lic schools.

“Our schools have been prac­tic­ally aban­doned by the state,” said Char­lotte Tuck­er, whose two chil­dren at­tend Comly and North­east High. “We sup­port teach­ers be­cause we know how im­port­ant they are.”

“Right now, it’s the state that’s com­ing up short,” said Ron Whit­more, co-chair of PCAPS’ school fund­ing task force.

Comly is for­tu­nate to have a lot of par­ent sup­port in the form of vo­lun­teer­ism, ac­cord­ing to Mari­anne Drefs, whose grand­daugh­ter Ally Sli­wecki at­tends third grade.

“Every­body needs to step up to the plate a little more,” Drefs said. “I’d say the state needs to step up a little bit and May­or Nut­ter needs to look deep­er in his pock­ets. I’m con­cerned about 40 or 50 years from now. These kids are go­ing to be run­ning our coun­try. What’s go­ing to hap­pen if we don’t edu­cate them now?” ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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