Opinion

Leveling expectations: The archaic school district practice of moving teachers around sabotages student achievement | Opinion

The chaos it creates is a factor that contributes to the city’s gun violence crisis.

5th grade teacher Ms. Lane goes over learning activities for the day with her students at the Gloria Casarez Elementary School

5th grade teacher Ms. Lane goes over learning activities for the day with her students at the Gloria Casarez Elementary School

Courtesy Julio C. Nuñez
julionunez

Julio C. Nuñez has taught and led schools in Philadelphia for the past 14 years, He was the founding principal and CEO of Independence Charter School West. He currently serves as bilingual vice principal of the newly renamed Gloria Casarez School in Philadelphia.


Se llamaba Nicolas Elizalde.

Last week, several Philly schools began a second start to the academic year. Some got to add one or more teachers to their rosters, based on larger-than-projected student enrollment. For many others, including mine, the dreaded October reshuffling meant losing a teacher or two.

This practice — traditionally known as “leveling” and now formally called “enrollment-driven resource review” — has been done by the School District of Philadelphia since I began my education career in this city 14 years ago.

It did not make sense then. It makes much less sense now.

The district continues to treat teachers like widgets. If principals are given a modicum of respect, it’s the kind reserved for those who are disliked. This forgets we are the ones taking care of the city’s young people. We are the first line of defense to tackle gun violence.

Losing a teacher after the year begins has a rippling and crippling effect across a school community and educators’ morale. More importantly, it has a larger effect on student achievement than the public may realize.

When the Gloria Casarez School in Kensington was notified a couple of weeks back that we’d be losing a teacher, we knew our elementary school would be saying goodbye to the ambitious academic targets we had established earlier this semester. Without the guardrails, the goals veered from achievable to unrealistic.

Here’s how it played out: Due to the loss of a teaching position, we were forced to collapse a 5th grade classroom, redo the entire schedule for what special classes students get daily, and take away Spanish instruction as we moved the Spanish teacher to fill a vacancy in special education. It also forced us to pull counselors away from counseling to cover vacant spots on the new rotation.

All while each of our three kindergarten classrooms are at maximum capacity of nearly 30 students. We’re already doing our best to operate a school with six vacancies, including the lack of a nurse.

This is the first time our school has grown to include 5th grade. Families and students petitioned for it, and we acted on their behalf to make it happen. In this process, we promised families and students we would do right by them so their children would be successful. They trusted us.

But there is a crisis of trust playing out. Overall, our school has 40% fewer students enrolled than four years ago. The lack of trust is rooted in the historical crisis of funds and crisis of courage to do what is right, instead of what is politically expedient.

To the district and city leaders, I don’t know you personally, but I know you historically. And historically, your positions have not always yielded adequate support for Latino and Black children. It is still the case today.

In her book “Not Paved for Us: Black Educators & Public School Reform in Philadelphia,” Camika Royal provided urgent moral guidance at the onset of this school year “Any educator unwilling to use their position on behalf of those who have been marginalized, oppressed, and dispossessed is not worthy of their position,” Royal wrote. “Any educator more concerned with job security than with the lives of the students, families, and our collective humanity is a self-serving educator.”

Gloria Casarez Elementary Vice Principal Julio C. Nuñez at the ringing of the bell with the school’s new name

Gloria Casarez Elementary Vice Principal Julio C. Nuñez at the ringing of the bell with the school’s new name

Courtesy Julio C. Nuñez

By district estimates, it would cost less than 1% of its total budget to abolish the harmful — and frankly, racist — practice of leveling. The money is there. The courage to use it this way, however, we have yet to see.

School administrators like me instead must get creative to problem solve. Sometimes I wonder how much moral hazard that creates for policymakers.

What I know for certain is we come up short, time and again. We point fingers at each other for the gun violence that permeates the city. We are quick to blame those who pull the trigger. Yet we fail to ask, “Why? What was their experience like in school? At what point did we fail them?”

Our education system remains highly efficient at turning young people off of learning. It continues to give them an experience that doesn’t add enough value to their lives, that neglects to see them as full human beings, worthy of quality services and learning spaces. The result sometimes does not counteract the value the streets may offer.

If you want to see what the city will look like tomorrow, take a look at what is happening in a kindergarten classroom today, where teachers like ours struggle to give each of their students — overwhelmingly Black and Latino — the attention they deserve and need.

In this conundrum, we should not only focus on making it difficult for individuals to get guns. We should also prioritize the systems and practices that can discourage them from ever wanting them. The victimizers are often also victims. The least city and district leaders can do is empower educators to be there for them. Eliminating the practice of leveling is a start. Perhaps then our next Nicolas Elizalde will live to see 15.

Connect the dots. Connect the dots. Connect the dots.

Before they were shooters, they were students.

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