School board members hear criticism of leveling process

District staff also presented updates on facilities, including hiring more cleaners at a higher salary.

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

The school board’s Finance & Facilities Committee met with the public for the second time on Thursday and got a mouthful of indignation from parents and teachers about the leveling process, which happens at the beginning of October. That’s when teachers and special education assistants are moved between schools based on enrollment needs.

In other words, staff in under-enrolled schools are forced to move to positions at over-enrolled schools. Teachers are notified a week before their move.

The meeting also featured an update on the District’s facilities plan, which includes raises for workers in janitorial services to help the District hire more cleaners in the coming months.

The leveling process eliminated a potential 93 vacancies, leaving the District with roughly 100 vacancies instead of nearly 200. But it’s also used to save money, this year $11 million. That’s 0.4 percent of the District’s annual budget. Teachers and parents alike said this cost-savings was not worth the level of disruption that leveling brought to schools and classrooms.

Efforts to reduce the impact of leveling

The leveling process is managed by the District’s Finance Department, but it has input from several other departments. It adjusts enrollment needs based on a school’s demographics, such as special education students and English learners.

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, who is in charge of the leveling process, said the District has been gathering more data to predict enrollment more accurately so that vacancies aren’t filled at schools where enrollment is projected to decline. Monson said this reduced the number of positions that had to be leveled after the school year started.

That’s the primary complaint coming from parents and teachers: the leveling occurs after the school year has already begun, often resulting in combined classes, whole new rosters for high school students, and young children meeting a new teacher after they had formed a bond with their first one.

Hannah Sassaman, the parent of a 2nd grader at Penn Alexander, called for an end to the longstanding practice entirely.

“As a mom, investment in a teacher is an investment in the most important relationships and the culture inside a school, which doesn’t form within days, let alone months, and disturbing that culture can be brutal,” Sassaman said. “Leveling drains commitment and predictability in a school, and that lessens parent and family commitment. … It feels like that school is not a place we can rely on.

“As parents, we understand the hard trade-offs, but we also want to prioritize teachers as the most important investment.”

Monson said that the District draws up an initial list of the teachers that they would like to transfer based on actual enrollment in a school, as opposed to predictions, and on student demographics. Then the school’s principals, assistant superintendents, and various administrative offices are given a chance to weigh in on the list. The District then draws up a new list based on those recommendations.

This adjustment process closed a few additional vacancies this year and resulted in 73 fewer teachers having to leave their classrooms.

In the end, 62 schools gained staff and 56 lost staff, for a total of 118 schools that went through some disruption. Ninety-four schools saw no change.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” said school board member Chris McGinley. “When I was in high school, I lost my English teacher through leveling – and that was the 1970s.”

“This year,” Monson said, “we’ve created a teacher position that’s available to be plugged in where we need them, and we were able to do that in some cases to reduce the impact.”

Educators on the board oppose leveling

School board member Angela McIver, who used to work for Mastery Charter Schools, agreed that leveling is a disruptive process that should be avoided whenever possible.

“I’ve been in schools where leveling has happened,” McIver said, “and I think it’s highly disruptive, especially on the elementary school level. As a teacher, you literally just try to get through that year. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t taught in a classroom understands how disruptive that is. I know this is an incredibly complicated issue, but I feel like we’ve been doing it this way for so long that we’re not willing to think about another way to handle this.”

McIver asked Monson to estimate the academic impacts of leveling, as well as the financial impacts. Monson said he wasn’t sure exactly how to do that, but he would try. He acknowledged that the academic impacts are very real, just difficult to measure.

The board’s other career educator, Chris McGinley, agreed with McIver, pointing out that “we’re the only school district in the state of Pennsylvania that does this.” McGinley served as superintendent in Cheltenham and Lower Merion.

Monson countered by saying that the other districts in Pennsylvania are not as large as Philadelphia and that leveling is common in large cities around the country, though they don’t all use that term for it.

The District has been working in recent years to reduce the number of teachers that are leveled. Monson said that only four schools had gained three or more teachers: Mitchell, Cooke, and Lowell Elementaries, and George Washington High. The schools that lost more than three teachers included Martin Luther King High, Overbrook High, Mastbaum High, and Lamberton Elementary.

Monson added that some teachers were moved for reasons of seniority.

“There are requirements [in the teachers’ contract] that teacher seniority takes precedence,” Monson said. “So if a 5th grade is smaller than anticipated, but the 5th-grade teacher has more seniority than the 2nd-grade teacher, their seniority takes priority and the 2nd-grade teacher gets moved.”

That results in more shuffling around of teachers and can affect more grades.

Board President Joyce Wilkerson wanted to know what makes student enrollment so unpredictable.

Monson gave three reasons: Kindergarten enrollment is not mandatory, so parents tend to find a school relatively late in the process. He said the biggest factor is school choice in general and charter schools in particular. There is also “a general transience in Philadelphia,” he said.

As some parents pointed out, that transience is class-based and benefits those who can afford to move at the expense of those who cannot. Transience also results from families moving because they have been evicted or otherwise need to move due to reasons tied to poverty.

Gentrification and overcrowding

Kieko Glover, who has a daughter at Kearny Elementary School, spent the hour before her testimony rocking her youngest child’s baby carriage back and forth in the audience.

Glover’s eldest child was affected by the leveling, and she says gentrification in her neighborhood, Northern Liberties, has led to more parents choosing charter schools or private schools. And that process has driven “segregation” of the schools in her neighborhood, a concept confirmed by recent studies of school choice systems.

“I’m here because my 1st-grade daughter lost her teacher this week, Ms. Booker, taken away from her classroom through leveling,” Glover said. “I’m here because Kearny has lost teachers every year for the last three years. At the same time, Kearny has made progress — but we are in danger of losing those gains.”

She said that two 2nd-grade classrooms were merged into one to cope with losing the teacher.

“The middle-class, mostly white people who are moving into our neighborhood — they find other options,” Glover said. “These other [charter and private] schools don’t have to deal with teachers being snatched away during the school year. Every year, the District has no problem disrupting our students at Kearny, and then they blame our school when we don’t make enough gains [on standardized tests].

“It’s not fair. These students’ lives are not just numbers on a balance sheet.”

Monson said the District takes changing demographics into account, but many of the things driving those demographics are out of the District’s control. Glover invited Monson and school board members to visit her neighborhood and see just how “plain” the segregation is.

Boris Clouden was not signed up to speak, but he had similar concerns. The informal structure of the committee meetings allowed the audience members to raise their hands and ask questions of District staffers — unheard-of in the days of the School Reform Commission. Clouden was concerned about over-enrollment.

“Around 2013, in the Northeast, they had 21 schools with overcrowding, ranging from 100-900 children,” Clouden said. “But at the same time, the District is closing schools in other areas. In Germantown, you probably closed five schools.”

Clouden did not understand why under-enrolled schools had to be closed while other schools were over-enrolled. He wanted an update on schools that were over-enrolled, and Monson assured him that he would get those numbers.

Hiring more facilities staff

Danielle Floyd, the District’s chief operating officer, gave a presentation on the District’s progress in remediating lead, mold, and asbestos.

The lead paint stabilization program is underway at six schools, and 34 others have been assessed, leaving only four that still need assessments, she said. The project has spent $2.7 million, with $5 million more to go. Work will start in two new schools shortly.

“We established an advisory group to assist with project oversight and monitoring and advise how our work around paint stabilization can evolve,” Floyd said. “One thing that came up was to have a more robust selection matrix to determine what schools we work in next.”

Based on feedback from the District’s advisory group, Floyd is prioritizing elementary schools because they serve the youngest and therefore most vulnerable students. In addition, schools are assessed based on rates of asthma, custodial staff levels, the severity of paint damage, total enrollment, and the availability of extra space within the building.

The Board of Education will vote on an increase to the salaries of cleaners and school bus attendants at the next action meeting. If approved, the new salary would be $13.32 an hour for cleaners and $13.87 an hour for bus attendants, costing $2.9 million annually and giving raises to 383 employees.

The new salary is at the same level that cleaners used to collect before their union agreed to a pay reduction after budget cuts under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The raise will restore what was previously cut.

The District has budgeted for several dozen new cleaning staff but has not been able to fill all the vacancies. Floyd expects the new salary will go a long way in helping their hiring efforts, because, she said, the old salary is simply “not competitive” with other local cleaning positions.

The District also had the owner of Creedon Management Associates present the findings of his company’s study on how the District can improve their maintenance and repair of school buildings.

Creedon was blunt: It could not be done without spending more money.

First he noted that the District simply does not have enough building engineers, saying that many larger buildings should have two but only have one. He added that while they must hire more building engineers, they also needed to “dramatically” increase the number of cleaning staff by January. Floyd said the District has budgeted for this increase and hopes to make the new hires in January.

McGinley said he would like to spend the budgeted money as soon as possible.

“This is a situation of pay now or pay more later,” he said. “If we don’t get those cleaners in now, we’ll have more lead and more mold. I’d rather spend the money now.”

And that is the District’s goal, though it remains to be seen whether the salary increase will be enough to attract all the new cleaners that the District budgeted for.

The District is in the middle of 48 active construction projects, valued at $180 million. It embarked on nine new construction projects last month, which have been assigned to designers. Four others are open for competitive bidding and will require approval by the school board.

Those larger projects open to bidders include the construction of a new school on Ryan Avenue, paint and plaster repairs, façade inspection services, and a study of attendance zones and the corresponding demographics.

Last summer, the District hired outside environmental workers to remove asbestos-containing material such as flooring and pipe insulation from seven schools. That work is finished, and reports are now available online and in the main office of each school.