Parents challenge ‘functional’ schools with court action

schools rally philadelphia
A rally in May outside the School District headquarters called for a halt to budget cuts.
Credit: Rikard Larma/Metro

In advance of the opening Monday of Philadelphia public schools, a group of parents is meeting with attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia to file legal complaints with the state department of education.

“The state constitution mandates a ‘thorough and efficient level of education,’ so that’s what we’re challenging,” said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, herself mother to three students.

“We don’t even need to use our words. The superintendent himself a week and a half ago said he only has enough resources to open ‘functional’ types of schools – that’s exactly what his words were. And as a parent, that’s just unimaginable.”

Gym said stakeholders are just now starting to find out what the so-called “functional” schools will mean for the 138,000 students returning to classes Monday.

She said parents at recent meetings have reported massive overcrowding, with as many as 45 students per classroom, as well as merging grade levels due to teacher shortages.

“We did those policies back in the ’90s and they were terrible for children and widely recognized as terrible,” Gym said.

“But they’re back, inconceivably, and without anybody being informed of why or how they’re pedagogically justified.”

With the layoffs of nearly 3,000 school district personnel, libraries are being shuttered and extracurriculars axed.

“My daughter lost her music teacher, cross country coach, her dean and her guidance counselor,” Gym said.

Adding to the complexity, officials are engaged in a complicated tangle of legislative funding packages and contract negotiations involving the city and state legislatures, the state-run School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union.

Gym said such leaders have “completely and utterly” failed city schools.

“We’re at a time for all this ridiculous stuff that our elected leaders are engaged in right now – all that pettiness, being upset about YouTube videos – that needs to stop,” she said.

“Everyone needs to focus on making sure schools are open and ready – and they’re not right now.”

Gym said parents are attempting to manage the uncertainties but remain concerned their children may not even make it to school safely.

“The School District is probably undergoing the most massive school mergers the city’s ever seen – they closed down 24 schools in the spring,” she said.

“They’ll be moving 7,000 to 8,000 children across unfamiliar neighborhoods into places they don’t even know, and nobody has a plan for that – nobody. … I don’t think the district even understands what’s going to happen Monday – that’s how bad it is.”

Gym said it’s time for parents, students and educators to take matters into their own hands, which is why she hopes to see the complaints move forward by Monday.

“We have tried and we have waited and we have fervently believed [the school funding crisis] wasn’t because of absolute negligence, maliciousness or sheer incompetence, but that’s where we’re at right now,” she said.

“Someone’s got to wake up to fact that what’s happening in Philadelphia is absolutely unconscionable. Meetings, press conferences and marches are not doing it, so we’ve got to look at something else.”

The legal filings will be discussed in more detail at a Sept. 5 meeting held by Parents United for Public Education and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, slated for 5:30-7 p.m. at the United Way Building, located at 17th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

By the numbers

When schools open Monday, they will have:

1 nurse for every 1,500 students
1 assistant principal, if the school has more than 850 students, and almost no administrative support if the school has fewer students
0 librarians
0 full-time guidance counselors if the school has fewer than 600 students, meaning about 60 percent of schools will have no counselors


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