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?” ••