Leveling: What’s your story?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Avi Wolfman-Arent

Updated 10-18 with response from District.

After a tumultuous summer in which she was laid off, rehired, and given her new course roster on the first day of classes, District English teacher Kyla Jones was finally settling into her new surroundings at Overbook High School.

Jones had established promising relationships with the parents of her 9th grade students and was learning valuable skills from a veteran teacher with which she was co-teaching 11th grade English.

The stability wouldn’t last long.

In three “whirlwind” days last week, Jones got notice she would be force-transferred to a new school, quickly picked that new school, and said goodbye to her Overbook students.

“It definitely made my head spin,” Jones said.

As a part of the District’s annual “leveling” process, Jones was moved to compensate for overstaffing at Overbrook and understaffing at other high schools.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract specifies class size limits – 30 in grades K-3 and 33 above that – and the District’s process assigns teachers to each school at the start of the year based on its best enrollment estimates.

But teachers can be moved around in mid-October based on how many students actually show up.

In years when the District might have had some money to play with, it tried to avoid the disruptive musical chairs exercise. It hired new teachers where needed, but didn’t decrease the number in schools considered “overstaffed.”

But this year, when it needs to save every cent it can, leveling was in full swing, snaring teachers like Kyla Jones.

Because there’s “no fat in the budget,” according to PFT spokesperson Barbara Goodman, the District mandated more forced transfers this year than in years past.

Just how many remains unclear. The PFT says it does not keep exact numbers and a request for data from the District is still pending. Updated: This year 84 teachers were transferred, compared to 50 last year. There are no vacancies as result of the leveling process and 42 additional teachers were called back.

What’s more clear is the impact on students and teachers, particularly young ones like Jones who were more likely to be laid off this summer and more likely to be force-transferred during the October leveling process.

Jones spent a year and a half at an accelerated school before getting a position at Overbrook for September. Now, she is at Bartram High in Southwest Philadelphia.

The unnerving experience has Jones considering graduate school as a backup plan. Her Overbook freshmen, just two months into high school, have to get used to a new teacher, while her new Bartram students must get used to her. And vice versa.

Jones thinks that’s unfair.

“The students in this district, every single one I’ve met, they want order, they want routine, they want a quiet classroom,” Jones said.

She says that frequent teacher movement disrupts student learning.

“It doesn’t seem to be a priority of the District to keep people in their positions. As long as there is a body in the classroom it doesn’t matter whose body it is,” Jones said.

What have been your experiences with leveling? If you have been force-transferred this year or know teachers who have been moved, or are a student caught up in this disruptive process, we would like to know.

Please email Avi Wolfman-Arent, call 215-951-0330 ext. 2142, or leave a comment.