Parents protest outside Jenks Elementary School. They say their students are subjected to classes with more than one grade level.
A group of community members and parents of students attending the Abram Stockton (A.S.) Jenks School in South Philadelphia gathered this morning to protest a Philadelphia School District policy that has resulted in the implementation of split-grade classrooms throughout the school, and the removal of a third-grade teacher.
"I have a child in third-grade and it’s affecting him because he doesn’t know where he’s going to go. He could either end up in a class with second-graders or he could be bumped up and put into a class with fourth-graders. Either way it’s stressful and it’s confusing," said Kimberly Moore. "Split grades are a terrible policy."
Moore, who is president of the Jenks Home and School Association, organized the rally. Her son attends the school and she believes split-grade classrooms are confusing, and generally, just no good.
So why is the School District of Philadelphia implementing these split-grade classes?
According to SDP spokesman Fernando Gallard, split-grade classes are a part of a District policy called ‘leveling.’ Leveling is the District’s method for making the best use of its limited pool of teachers; and yes, it is ultimately due to the District’s lack of funding.
"Since we are in financial distress, we are unable to afford hiring more teachers,” Gallard said. "Split classes are used all over the U.S. and in many, many school districts. Philadelphia used to have them, and then we decided that we were able to do away with them roughly 5 or 6 years ago. Now that we do not have the funds, we unfortunately have to go back, and have to manage that with split classes.”
The "leveling" process, as Gallard explained, is something that the District does every year as a means of determining appropriate student-to-teacher ratios per classroom. At the beginning of each school year, the District uses an estimate to determine how many students will attend a school, and it assigns teachers to schools based on those estimates. Weeks later, the District re-evaluates school enrollment to see if the numbers match up. If the District finds that there are too many teachers assigned to a school, teachers may be relocated to schools that do not have enough teachers.
At A.S. Jenks, the leveling process led to the removal and relocation of one of its third-grade teachers.
With the District’s re-introduction of split-grade classrooms, students are likely to see larger classroom sizes that have a blend of students from different grades. Which schools will have split-grade classrooms and which will lose or gain teachers, Gallard says, will be solely determined by enrollment numbers and attendance.
"It’s really gonna depend school-by-school," Gallard said. "Some will see split classes decrease; some will see them increase."
A.S. Jenks is seeing that increase. In fact, all of the school’s first- through fourth-grade classes will now be split-grade, with kindergarten being the only exception.
Parents attending this morning’s rally also complained that the school does not have a full-time nurse or a guidance counselor.
"We have parents -- a number of whom don't speak English -- whose children are in fourth-grade and need a guidance counselor to advise them on where to go for fifth-grade. Deadlines are coming up and it's really serious," Moore said.
"It should not matter whether my child is in a school of 300 or a school of 1200. Every child deserves a full-time guidance counselor, a full-time nurse, and a teacher for every grade. It's not rocket science. It's responsibility."
For parents, the leveling process is almost over. Gallard says the District will begin notifying parents of any teacher re locations or split-grade classrooms as early as next week.
Still the bigger issues of fully funding Philadelphia’s Public Schools weighed heavily on the parents of A.S. Jenks students, as several mothers who spoke at the rally were brought to tears, saying they’re frustrated with the situation.
"We cannot do this every year," Moore said. "Our parents are tough, but they’re tired, and it’s every year that we’re fighting for our children and their education.”
Gallard said the District is equally frustrated with the lack of funding and resources.
“We are also extremely unhappy. We understand why parents are unhappy; it is because of the lack of counselors, because of the shortage in teachers, and all of the items that we are missing due to not enough funding in public schools. We understand and we are unsatisfied as well,” he said.
Others in attendance at the rally pointed indirect blame at Governor Tom Corbett’s decision to decrease the state’s public school funding package, while increasing funding for the state’s Department of Corrections by chanting, "Fund schools, not prisons; education, not incarceration."
The chant mirrored sentiments shared by Reverend Al Sharpton during a Higher Education Awareness event in September.
During a visit to Philadelphia today, Reverend Al Sharpton reiterated his disapproval of Corbett’s funding decisions for Philadelphia Public Schools.
"For Corbett to cut the budget and invest in jails is insulting to taxpayers," Sharpton said. "Funding should be used for innovation, not the privatization of the public school system."
Corbett has yet to release a promised one-time infusion of $45 million to the District, citing required reforms as a barrier to the release of the funds.
Moore implored Corbett to release the funds, now.
“I think the state needs to get off the $45 million that they’ve been promising us because promises are promises. Let’s go. Let’s get the money into our schools," she said. "That would make a big difference, I believe. I know it’s a short term resolution but it’s something that would help them now and then we can sit down and discuss what to do in the future."