Opinion: Don’t steal our teachers during a pandemic

How can the Philadelphia School District go forward with “leveling” this year?

Philadelphia School District headquarters on North Broad Street

Philadelphia School District headquarters on North Broad Street

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
Headshot SK

Imagine you’re a nervous first grader, heading back to school with your neatly-ironed uniform and your Hello Kitty lunchbox.

You spend the first month of school getting acclimated, guided by your nice teacher, and make friends with your new classmates. Then October arrives. The school district suddenly comes in and rips your teacher away from you, juggling your classmates around as you’re abruptly reassigned to a different group and your teacher is sent to another school.

This is the reality for schoolchildren across Philadelphia each year, through a process called “leveling.”

Now imagine there’s a pandemic, and all this is happening at the same time your parents and teachers are struggling to make sure you keep learning at home. Yes, leveling will still happen this year despite coronavirus disruptions, Philadelphia School Superintendent Dr. William Hite confirmed.

Here’s how it works: district administration waits until school is underway to make its final staffing decisions, which are based on enrollment. It then takes teachers out of already-established classrooms and transfers them to other schools.

As if it’s not startling enough to lose your teacher, leveling has a cascading effect throughout the entire school.

Classrooms are combined, straining some at the seams with the maximum number of students. Veteran teachers who aren’t cut are often re-assigned within their schools to cover the losses, and can end up teaching grades with which they might not have experience.

Leveling can disproportionately affect Black and brown students, something that could easily become more pronounced during the pandemic. Many parents right now are uncertain about their childcare arrangements, and some affluent families are enrolling in private schools or forming homeschooling “pods.” These movements mean that this fall, schools may show declining enrollments that are NOT reflective of full demand. When in-person learning resumes, classrooms could end up short-staffed.

Leveling is also a side effect of de facto school segregation. Once a certain school reaches a tipping point of white students, their enrollment tends to increase as other “Nice White Parents” transfer their children in. Additional teachers get transferred over, at the expense of the schools those children might have otherwise been attending.

It’s not only under-enrolled or high-poverty schools that fear leveling. When schools like Meredith and Masterman have to quake in fear of teacher cuts, it’s a sign that the system is definitely not working.

The district claims it saves $12 million a year with leveling, but at what cost? If the district can afford to hire an endless stream of consultants, to pay the salaries of numerous charter school CEOs who overcharge us for special education students, and to renovate Dr. Hite’s office suite for $604,000 while the district bungles the $50 million Ben Franklin/SLA renovation, we can afford to keep teachers in classrooms.

People criticize teachers’ unions for trying to protect jobs, but hold up: who do those critics think will actually do the teaching? Google Classroom or Zoom aren’t some Artificial Intelligence who can help our kids learn by themselves. Philly teachers are out there grinding to make an imperfect system work.

Other school districts make their staffing decisions during the “off season,” based on projected enrollments, hiring additional staff when they discover shortages. Our district could also switch to using a 3- or 5-year rolling average, to smooth out fluctuations.

Taking teachers out of classrooms that need them to patch up staffing holes at other schools is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The process ignores the academic and emotional needs of the students who traumatically lose their teacher mid-year, while going against the district’s stated “goals and guardrails” that promise we’re “giving each student what they need to reach their fullest potential.”

Like everything else this year, enrollment numbers are sure to be irregular. Leveling is barbaric during the best of times. But right now, when students are struggling to regain some sense of normalcy and learn under duress, snatching teachers out of their classrooms is downright ghoulish.

The School District of Philadelphia needs to leave our teachers right where they are, holding down the fort.