Annual Philadelphia teacher shuffle known as ‘leveling’ inspires protest

A group of people hold signs on stone steps
Holding signs and chanting, parents and students protest the loss of a teacher at Houston elementary school due to leveling, the practice of moving teachers around to match actual vs. expected enrollment. Houston is losing a fifth grade teacher. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

It’s October, time for the dreaded practice of “leveling” Philadelphia schools.

Just when students and teachers are settling into their classes for the year, the district takes stock: It determines whether its teacher assignments, based on preregistration and estimates, are in line with the number of students who actually showed up, in each grade and school. For many schools — especially those with elementary and middle grades — there is a mismatch, triggering a musical chairs game of teacher reassignments and transfers. 

Some schools gain a teacher or two or even more, but others lose. And for those schools, the result is unwelcome and sometimes traumatic. 

One of them is Henry H. Houston Elementary School in Mount Airy, where the administration planned for two fifth grade classes. The school community was excited, because teaching in one of those classrooms was Lya Rodgers, who grew up in the neighborhood and was returning after several years abroad. She specifically sought to teach at Houston. 

But only 31 fifth-grade students are enrolled now, below the maximum for a single class allowed under the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The maximum is 30 students for kindergarten through third and 33 for fourth through eighth.

So Houston’s two fifth grade classes of 15 and 16 students — closer to the norm in many suburban districts — will be combined into one, and Rodgers will be going elsewhere, starting Oct. 10. She was given five schools to choose from.

She “got just five days’ notice,” said parent Emily Pugliese. “She’s leaving Friday.” 

In all, 59 schools lost teachers this year under leveling, according to figures released by the district, and 88 teachers moved.

Another 45 schools were absolved from any impact, with 93 teachers able to stay despite fewer students showing up in their schools than expected; many of those are criteria-based or magnet schools. And at an additional 50 schools, 66 teacher positions were added because of higher enrollment figures.

At Houston, dozens of parents and other neighborhood residents upset about the loss of Rodgers — and the practice of leveling — gathered after school Wednesday in front of the building to protest.

They held up signs and chanted slogans including “All year, teachers stay here; “Lose leveling, not teachers,” and “Keep Ms Lya.”

“I really want my teacher to stay,” said fifth grader Sarina Hayes. “I feel like she’s my mom. And she’s really funny.”

Parent Christina Jackson, who has fifth grade twins, called leveling “a disruptive process.” 

“It feels like teachers are treated like pawns,” Jackson said. “It’s all about numbers, not relationships built with students. It doesn’t seem the district is caring about the real health of our kids.” 

It’s “reckless,” she said, to do all this moving “based on a couple of kids over or under a number.” She said if it goes through, she will consider homeschooling.

“My daughter will not do well in a class with way more kids,” she said.

Mary Hoeffel has a daughter in fifth grade at Houston and one in second grade. 

Her fifth grader “loves, loves” Rodgers, Hoeffel said Tuesday. “Her homework is so engaging, she loves class discussions, the book they’re reading, and it’s been great from Day 1. And then she found out yesterday that Rodgers would be gone next week.”

For her part, Rodgers left school as usual with other teachers directly to the parking lot via the back door and didn’t answer an email seeking comment.

Leveling is a longstanding practice growing out of the need to make sure schools are adequately and appropriately staffed, but also driven by concerns around equity in teacher distribution and by the need for cost-efficiency in the perennially cash-strapped district.

No one questions the need to add teachers in schools where more students show up than planned for, but taking teachers away after the year begins has long prompted complaints that it destabilizes schools. On occasion, superintendents have suspended the practice of moving teachers out of underenrolled schools. 

The process governing which teachers are reassigned when a school must give up a teacher has also been controversial, as it is primarily based on seniority rather than a principal’s best judgment. 

This year, though, the district is also facing a teacher shortage. When the school year started, there were close to 400 vacancies. District spokeswoman Marissa Orbanek said that the “fill rate” is still at 96%, meaning that most of those vacancies still exist.

Orbanek acknowledged the importance of consistent access to qualified teachers. “We will continue to refine our processes, including seeking to more accurately project student enrollment at each school and grade level prior to the start of the school year so that mid-year staffing adjustments can be avoided as much as possible,” Orbanek said in a statement.

She said that staff reassignments are continuing through Thursday, so the numbers may change. Superintendent Tony Watlington will provide more information “within the next day or so,” Orbanek said.

Several Houston parents signed on to an anguished letter to Watlington, begging him to reconsider.

“If the School District of Philadelphia is dedicated to trauma-informed practices, why does it continue to engage in the trauma-inducing practice of leveling?” the letter says, calling on district officials to review the practice and “to halt this harm to this wonderful, growing, neighborhood school.”

Houston, which has about 400 students, is in a progressive, politically active, racially integrated part of the city. In recent years, it has made progress in attracting more parents, white and Black, to send their children there instead of to private or charter schools. 

The school has as high a proportion of white students now as when it was given extra amenities as part of the district’s voluntary desegregation program, which was in effect from the early 1980s until 2011. The school also has many students whose families applied to attend from outside the neighborhood. 

Houston also had started a “differentiation initiative,” in which one grade teacher concentrated on English language arts and social studies, while the other focused on math and science. That project will also be derailed by Rodgers’ reassignment. 

Rodgers happened to be the teacher at the school who was lowest in building seniority, so she was the person who needed to move. But sometimes, the teacher who is reassigned is not in the underenrolled grade, which results in more internal shuffling within the school as teachers are moved around to compensate.

The Houston parents’ letter notes that this year’s fourth grade has close to 50 students, so next year’s fifth grade will almost certainly require two teachers.

At the protest, parent Ari Jackson (no relation to Christina) said she had two children at Houston, a fifth grader and a seventh grader, who has been there since kindergarten. 

“This is disrupting for a lot of kids,” she said. “And it goes without saying that it’s better to have 15 rather than 30-plus students in a class. There’s more individualization. That’s self- explanatory.”

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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