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First grade teacher Holly Lau crouched down so she could speak with her new student Jahlil Porter at his level.
“It’s our first day, too,” she said reassuringly to Porter, who was sporting a colorful backpack but looked a bit lost after showing up to his first day of school Tuesday at Bluford Elementary School. It was something of a fresh start for Bluford as well — it was a charter school last year but has returned to district control.
Lau was generous with her hugs, and then led her students into the building between a line of cameras and dignitaries including Mayor Jim Kenney, Superintendent Tony Watlington, and state Sen. Vincent Hughes marking the first day of school for Philadelphia’s more than 113,000 public school students.
If Jahlil was jittery, so was his mom. “I’m a little nervous,” said Yvette Williams. “I just hope everything goes well for our kids.”
More than 500 students at Bluford avoided the disruptions to the start of the school year caused by extreme heat. Students at 74 other schools in the city without air conditioning or in need of electrical system upgrades weren’t so lucky.
With temperatures projected to soar above 90 degrees this week, the district informed families over the weekend that those schools would operate on an early dismissal schedule Tuesday and Wednesday, and that “any decisions about Thursday or Friday will be communicated by 12 p.m. on the day before.”
The news underscored the challenges Philadelphia schools face when it comes to infrastructure, following a year when several schools closed due to fears about asbestos.
After his first year leading the district, Superintendent Tony Watlington has big plans for year two, even as he wrestles with such long-standing challenges. He’s hoping to put his five-year strategic plan into action. A new math curriculum is hitting classrooms. And the district is planning a new “two-way communication system” to give parents more access to district staff.
On Tuesday, Watlington projected optimism.
“Every year teachers, students … get a chance to have a fresh start no matter what happened in the last year,” he said. “If you had a good year you can make it even better. If you made some mistakes last year we can improve on them.”
Watlington added that “the same is true with superintendents I’m told.”
Bluford Principal Tangela McClam, a graduate of the Philadelphia district, had good news Tuesday for parents gathered in front of the school wondering about dismissal times. The school day would end at 3:09 p.m., she said, not at noon.
Like Watlington, she expressed high hopes for the future of Philadelphia public schools.
“I am delighted to be able to lead a school that is returning [to the district]” McClam said. “We’re calling … for all of our community members, parents, families, and friends to help us as we launch successful citizens and prepare them for the next generation in Philadelphia.”
Asbestos, heat, and teacher vacancies remain concerns
Still, Philadelphia has a long way to go toward becoming “the fastest improving large urban district in the country,” which Watlington has said is his overarching goal. One hurdle will simply be ensuring students have safe school buildings to learn in.
The district will, in all likelihood, continue to uncover flaking asbestos this year, Watlington said. Although the district is still crafting its “master swing space plan” to ensure displaced students are able to learn in-person, disruptions should be expected.
Though some students at Frankford High School and all students at Universal Vare Charter School will be learning in other buildings this year as the district remediates damaged asbestos, the district has made progress with other schools that had been closed at the end of the previous school year.
In an effort to lessen the extreme heat affecting school buildings, the district has invested $285.7 million to “improve electrical and HVAC systems” in 23 schools and installed over 800 window air conditioning units and over 1,400 hydration stations, according to a statement from Oz Hill, the district’s chief operating officer.
Teacher and school staff vacancies are also persisting into the new school year.
According to the district, staffing is at 95.3% this year, meaning there are still more than 400 vacancies among the 9,000 positions for teachers and counselors. Last year, the school year started with about 200 vacancies.
District spokesperson Marissa Orbanek said last year the district had 225 yellow bus drivers; this year, she said, 210 have been hired so far. About 33,000 students are transported to school on yellow buses, she said, a number that includes district, charter, and private school students.
Under state law, the district must provide or pay for transportation for all students who live more than a mile and a half from the school they attend. The younger ones and those in special education require yellow buses; older students get free SEPTA passes.
A test for one Philadelphia school
This year will be pivotal to Bluford’s success as it transitions from its status as a Renaissance charter school back to district control.
In 2021, the Board of Education voted not to renew the charters of Bluford and nearby Daroff, which had been run by Universal Companies as part of a decade-old strategy of turning over existing district schools to charter operators in the hope of improving them.
Daroff has closed altogether. But the district is promising to engineer a turnaround at Bluford, which under Universal had fallen short of academic goals and had financial problems.
“I’m hoping for a good school year,” said Sharady McDuffie, the parent of two fourth graders at Bluford.
McClam said that the school is expecting 505 students, although only 95 had been signed up when she arrived to take over the school in the summer. She held various outreach events and said that so far about 400 are officially enrolled.
On Tuesday, McClam gathered unregistered students into the auditorium to fill out paperwork and get them cleared for class.
The school was named for astronaut Guion Bluford, the first Black person to travel to space and who attended the school when it was called the Hanna School. Keeping the school’s namesake in mind, McClam said the motto this year will be “launching successful citizens.”
Meanwhile, at a “meet and greet” event last week at Ellwood Elementary School — one of the 74 schools on a revised heat schedule this week — dozens of students and their parents showed up to meet their teachers and collect goodies such as backpacks, water bottles, and pencils.
Ellwood, built in the 1950s, isn’t as up to date as it could be when it comes to infrastructure. But it has gotten new windows and doors. The school is installing air conditioning, but it’s not yet operational. And parents and students are still holding out hope for a strong school year.
Assistant Principal Edward Davies said that the focus for Ellwood this year is “maintaining what we have and making gains.” It was easy to find excited students around him.
Eris Brown, 7, is entering second grade. Her favorite subject, for now, is art. But she has big ambitions. “I hope to learn everything,” she said.
Berlyn Stanford, 6, is entering first grade and likes school because “I get to play with toys. I can meet new friends and I like gym class.”
Kiyon Harris, 8, who is entering second grade, spent a long time talking to physical education teacher David DiEva about his plans for the year, hands on hips and ideas flowing. He said he’s looking forward to “a lot of math, and reading, and I like activities and sports,” he said.
Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at email@example.com.
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org.