Weekly Update: Read. Relax. Repeat.

It's full summer, and we hope you're having a chance to relax your body, mind, and soul. It's going to be an exciting year as we build a movement to fight for our schools and communities, and we all need to be well rested!

While you're relaxing on the couch or by the beach, catch up with some of the 11 different books being read as part of our summer book clubs. Each group has been posting notes, photos, and questions from their discussions-- so that you can take part even if you're far from Philly.

Take a look at some of the highlights below, and please add your own comments on the blog or on our facebook page:

51ekNA4OKyL._SY344_BO1_204_203_200_.jpgMultiplication is for White People, Lisa Delpit
Essential Question: How can we teach deeply so that all students learn, while still covering content?

"The first year the district rolled out Math In Context, there was a lesson about building towers in there. I started the lesson with my class of 7th graders, and many became frustrated. Then it dawned on me, the lesson was based on squaring numbers, a concept taught in earlier grades. I had made the initial assumption that the kids would know how to do that, but they did not. So I backed it up and taught the basic skills first.

Did we achieve the grade level lesson? YES! Did it take twice as long as the Planning and Scheduling Time Line suggested? YES! Nia made the point that there is so much content to cover, we never get time to teach anything in depth. I find myself picking and choosing, what is a skill that is necessary that I can go deep with versus a skill that they may see again or is not that crucial in life that I can spend less time on (box and whisker plot, anyone?). These are the struggles many of us face on a daily basis." Read more from this book club here!

More highlights below the jump (click 'read more')

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What's going on with our teacher pensions?

By Dave Former

Much of the controversy regarding the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) rests on the distinction between defined-benefit and defined-contribution retirement systems.

  • In defined-benefit systems, the employer promises to pay a certain benefit to the employee upon retirement, usually based on working salary and length of service. The employee and the employer make contributions to an overall fund, which is then invested in an effort to grow the fund. If the fund does not grow enough to cover all of the promised benefits, the employer must contribute additional funds to make up the difference.
  • In defined-contribution systems, the employer promises to make a certain contribution to the employee’s retirement fund. The employee usually gets to choose how this individual fund will be invested from a limited menu of options. When the employee retires, he or she can begin to withdraw from his or her individual fund. If the fund has grown considerably, the employee gets all of the benefit of that growth. But if it has not grown substantially enough to pay for the employee’s expenses during retirement, then the employee is responsible for making up the difference in whatever way possible.

PSERS is a defined-benefit system. It promises to provide a set payout no matter the current growth or status of the fund.

Many private companies have shifted their retirement benefit plans away from defined-benefit and toward defined-contribution because these are less expensive for the employer and create more cost certainty. As many public employee pension funds have faced large gaps between the money they expect to have and the money they are expected to pay out (aka, an unfunded liability), some lawmakers have tried to force this shift.

PSERS currently has a significant unfunded liability. One study estimates that there is an almost 70% chance that PSERS will run out of money in the next 15 years. Two laws passed in the last fifteen years help explain the situation.

  •  Act 9 in 2001 increased the contribution that workers made during their employment and also increased the benefit that they would receive when they retired. Employees at the time had the choice of retaining the old lower contribution and the corresponding lower benefit; employees who started working on or after July 1, 2001 automatically were put in the higher group. Employees who kept the old contribution and payout are in Class T-C. Employees who make the higher contribution and receive the higher payout are in Class T-D.
  • Act 120 in 2010 created two new groups of employees. Employees who join PSERS after July 1, 2011 choose to become part of Class T-E or Class T-F. Members of Class T-E make the same base contribution as members of Class T-D, but their pension benefit is the lower amount received by members of Class T-C. Members of Class T-F pay a higher employee contribution, but get the higher benefit associated with Class T-D. In addition, members of Classes T-E and T-F are subject to a shared-risk adjustment to their contribution. If the pension fund’s investments have not performed well over a three-year period, creating a larger unfunded liability, these employees must make a higher contribution in order to help make up the difference. So far, since Act 120 passed, this has not been required.

How do I know which category I fall into? Use the chart below to figure out which group you belong to. The PSERS website does have an online tool that will allow you to look up your member statement, but you must register in order to use the tool and it will take several days after you register for you to receive your password. The tool can be found at http://www.psers.state.pa.us/interaction/default.htm . The School District of Philadelphia Office of Human Resources also maintains a website with retirement information that can be found at http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/r/retirement , or you can call 215-400-4680 for more information.

 

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Act 9 was passed in part because the pension systems were in good shape after the high stock market returns of the 1990s. Between Act 9 and Act 120, there were two major stock market crashes, and school districts made smaller contributions in order to balance the budget. Many districts have experienced job cuts and or salary freezes and reductions since the 2009 recession, which means that current employees are putting less money than originally expected into the fund in order to pay for the benefits of current retirees. Act 120 also set caps on the rate at which school district contributions to the pension funds will increase, which can increase the gap between what the fund has on hand and what it needs to pay future benefits.

With PSERS facing such a large unfunded liability, it is very likely that the state government will make additional changes in the future. These changes could include changes to future benefits, changes to current contributions, or a conversion from the current defined-benefit system to a defined-contribution system. In fact, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill that would have required all new employees to join a new defined-contribution system that would eventually replace the existing defined-benefit system. Governor Wolf vetoed this bill, but we should expect changes to the pension system to be a continued subject of negotiations between the governor and the legislature.

It is also important to note that even though the bill vetoed by the governor would have left current members’ benefits and contributions unchanged at present, it would still have an effect on the health of the system. If all future employees are moved to a new defined-contribution system, that means that their payroll contributions will not go into the fund for the existing defined-benefit system. This would have the potential to increase the unfunded liability in the future.

As the negotiations continue, we will provide updates on this blog.

Dave Former teachers at Parkway Center City. 

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Our First-Ever Meme Competition: The Cost of Standardized Testing...

We're very excited to announce our first-ever meme competition! The focus: high-stakes standardized testing.

The annual cost of testing in PA is $58,291,000. But educators, parents, and communities know the costs to our students and schools are much greater. Help communicate the harms caused by high-stakes standardized tests and the privatization of our public schools: 

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Meme creator link: http://memegenerator.net/We-Optout-Meme-Contest

1)Simply follow the link above, click the green "create" button, and add your text! Click "generate" to complete the meme.

2) Make sure you save your image by right-clicking it and then selecting "save image as", or by sharing on social media. Make sure to tag it #‎OptOutMemeCompetition

3) Submit your meme to us by posting it on our facebook thread, or by emailing it to contact@workingeducators.org. All submissions will be credited.

(This photo was taken as part of the Philadelphia Opt Out Day of Action with Jesse Turner on July 7th, 2015. Click here for more photos from the event: https://goo.gl/O44sko)

 

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An Open Letter in Defense of Art Class at Bartram H.S.

Dear Philadelphia,

I want to give you an update of conditions at Bartram. Perhaps you can spread this piece of positive news, even though it is mixed with some negative. Chris Palmer, John Bartram’s art teacher extraordinaire, has been CUT. After this year there will no longer be an art program at Bartram High School even though current Art Education Coordinator, Deborah Klose, states that all high schools should have at least two expressive art classes. There will still be CTE programs of graphic design and video production that are offered to a select group of hand-chosen students. However, the rest of the school will be left with one elective--music.

The district has predicted that Bartram’s enrollment will drop below 600 students, and thus requires less teaching staff. But, the elimination of a studio artprogram is the wrong target. Studies show that the integration of the expressive arts into school curricula has a measured positive effect in core subjects. Students need these expressive arts classes in order to aid their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Art is an essential and vital part of any high school. It breathes life into classrooms and provides yet another way for students to connect to their learning experiences. It “creates a unity of spirit and imagination,” and can help alleviate stress in an at-risk environment. Students need a chance to un-wind, express themselves, and regenerate in a district that only seems to value core subject proficiency. Studio Art, Dance, Music, and Drama are areas in which all students can express their thoughts and abilities in ways that use multiple intelligences.

Despite the lack of funding and lack of resources, Mr. Palmer, in his 7 years of tenure at Bartram, has created a strong art department worthy of any institution. He is an amazing artist who inspires students to create their own original pieces. I know that the students, their families, and staff have greatly appreciated his efforts. So, with art disappearing from the course selection at Bartram, I am extremely concerned about the detrimental effects this will have on the already distressed community of Bartram. I have seen students who are frustrated with their lack of academic success who thrive in art class.

In Mr. Palmer’s art class, I see English Language Learners, Special Education and regular education students working together in a collaborative classroom environment towards common goals…complete with differentiated instruction. I see “problem” students engaged and focused while working on their projects. I have also witnessed the undeniable therapeutic value ART has had on many of the troubled teens in the Southwest section of the city. Isn’t it ironic that this summer the PSD is offering PD for teachers in recognizing and dealing with victims of trauma?

As his farewell to the Bartram community, there will be an exhibition of pieces completed by his students of positive women role models titled, “Mothers, Daughters, Sisters.” The artwork is the companion show to his previous exhibition of positive male role models. You can see the positive impact of these previous exhibit on the lives of students in this video:

I do hope that you can spread this news on our efforts to maintain an art class at Bartram and retain Mr. Palmer as an exemplary art instructor.

Sincerely,

Bartram High School Staff

 

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Stand Up for Certified School Nurses

The School District of Philadelphia continues efforts to undermine the nationally recognized school health program offered for over one hundred years by seeking proposals to outsource certified school nurse positions.

Certified school nurses of Philadelphia have gained national and international attention in courageous advocacy for our students over the past three years since 100 nursing positions were eliminated.

Unlike the providers who will replace us if the district has its way

PFT certified school nurses provide:

  • Assessment and/or treatment and referral for every student, regardless of insurance status
  • Professional care with the utmost attention to privacy, coordinating care with families and primary care providers as needed
  • Evidence-based best practices, allowing students to remain in their classrooms to ensure optimal learning opportunities
  • Longstanding knowledge of our communities, families, and students
  • Stability as permanent, committed members of our school team
  • Advocacy for every child’s health and wellness        

STAND UP FOR PHILADELPHIA'S CERTIFIED SCHOOL NURSES! Share this information widely and contact eduffeybernt@gmail.com for more information and to help out.                         

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Class of 2015, Pledge to Vote Philly!

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Congratulations Seniors of Philly's Class of 2015!

Whether you stay in Philly, or you go away for work or college, your city needs your vote! A strong turnout of youth on Election Day can have a great impact on our city and the state. On November 3rd, which party will win Mayor, City Council, and the majority on the powerful Pennsylvania Supreme Court? Here's how you can decide:

1. Take the Class of 2015 Vote Philly! Pledge

We’ll keep you updated on important voting info. 

2. Register to Vote

If you will be 18 by November 3rd, download, print, and mail the completed form to:

The Philadelphia Voter Registration Office
520 N. Columbus Blvd, 5th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19123

The deadline to register to vote is 30 days before the election (October 4th, 2015) 

3. Apply for an absentee ballot (if you will be away at college or out of town on election day)

It's recommended that you wait at least 2 weeks after you register to vote before submitting your absentee ballot application to make sure you're on file as a voter. Check your registration status here: Am I Registered to Vote?

Complete the following sections NEATLY:

    A. Enter your Ward and Division [find them here].

        Check "ABSENTEE - Absent From County" 

    B. REASON FOR ABSENCE - Enter "College" (or another reason).

        SIGNATURE/DATE - Sign an date it!

    D. Complete all lines. 

    E. MAIL BALLOT TO THE FOLLOWING ADDRESS

Enter your college mailing address. If you don't know it yet, then enter your home address and ask your parents to forward it to you in October OR wait until you have the address to complete the application.

Stamp and mail the application to the Philadelphia County Board of Elections, City Hall Room 142, 1400 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19107

4. Research the ballot.

Start with these nonpartisan resources:

-Committee of Seventy

-Philadelphia City Commissioners

-Ballotpedia

Then research media coverage and endorsements from organizations you trust. 

5. Election Day!

Your election official will mail you a ballot before Election Day.  Complete the ballot, sign it, and mail it back. Your ballot must be received by the Friday before Election Day (October 30th) ... OR if you live in Philly find your neighborhood polling place and show up to the polls on November 3rd! 

We are proud of your accomplishment and wish you the best of success and fun in your continued studies and careers!

Keep Philly in your heart and VOTE!

 

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Can Book Clubs Save Public Education?

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When educators and communities are isolated and devalued, every time we come together to share ideas, analyze, and build community is a radical act. That's how Kathleen Riley, Pd.D, describes last year's summer social justice reading series in her essay "Reading for Change: Book Groups as an Organizing Tool":

In participating in WE’s book groups, I could feel the educators of Philadelphia using their power and authority to better know themselves, their worlds, and their circumstances. I could see people building relationships with each other and also making connections between books, as participants in one book group shared analyses developed in other groups.

This summer, we hope to continue bringing together educators from all walks of life and all parts of the city- parents, teachers, nurses, counselors, activists, community members, students, and anyone else!

Sign up for a book (or five) today!

Summer scheduling is hard, so after you sign up your facilitator will be in touch to pick 3-5 meeting times over the summer that work for everyone.

We have selected 11 books for this summer that address many issues in education, from racial justice pedagogy to charter school politics to organizing lessons from the SNCC. Sign up now!

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(Action shot from last summer's book club for
"Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia")
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From a Veteran School Nurse

I am almost speechless at the District’s solution to its well-documented failure to provide safe schools for our medically fragile students.  The solution is, of course, to hand it to an outsider, not hire more school nurses and tighten up on policies.  Pray tell me:
  • Who will review the immunization data at the beginning of the school year and compile a list of students who are not vaccinated or under-vaccinated so they can be excluded if there is an outbreak?
  • Who will follow up on each under-immunized student to complete their immunizations, thus protecting the school community?
  • Who will identify the medically fragile students and plan for their care in school?
  • Who will insists on a comprehensive physical from every new student to this school? Who will read and understand that physical, once it is completed?   
  • Who will check each student’s vision every year, near and far, expresses the results in easy to understand terms, your child can see at 20 feet what the normal eye can see at 200 feet, and then refer the students for a vision evaluation? Who will periodically follow up on those failures and give them an extra push to see the specialist?
  • Who will check hearing on all the 9th graders and new students?
  • Who will advise medical input for IEP’s and 504’s?
  • Who will assess a child in a health crisis?
What is the District doing? We have cut the nurses almost in half. State law requires one Certified School Nurse for every 1500 students. We are just about there in Philly. These are impossible numbers, given the circumstances that our students come from. We need to increase school nurses, not cut more. Clinics in the school will further fragment care. Students need to be seen and followed by their PCP, not a clinic appointed by the School District. How would this look? Is there a potential or actual conflict of interest there?
 
Students should get their physicals from their medical home. That home should remain a constant in their lives. The School Health Code is meant to build on that concept, not replace the family doctor, or the pediatrician. These ideas have been tried. The more we outsource: the more we fragment. What are they thinking?
 
I’m done. 
Onnie Kelley
Agnes  Kelley is Certified School Nurse working in the Philadelphia Schools since 2000. She has practiced nursing in Pa, NY, NJ, Ill, the Virgin Islands, and England. Her last clinical post was as an emergency room nurse. She has had a varied and long nursing career, first passing her Boards and thus the title RN, in 1970.  She was trained by the Sisters of Mercy, renowned for their excellence in nursing education.
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On Keystone Testing: A Philadelphia Teacher’s Reflection

Early last week, I stripped the walls of my classroom bare. I took down the flags students had created to represent themselves, I took down the project we’d been working on since February - a Literacy through Photography project that gives a complex vision of student identities - and that has inspired considerable pride and interest in my students. I took down the maps, the art, even my calendar. I moved the desks out of the large square we normally use, into sterile rows. It’s not the end of the year, though it may feel like it. For the second time this year, it’s Keystone season.

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Classroom: Before and After

For six days spread over two weeks, our school is disrupted. From 8 to 11:30, we are in testing rooms. For the rest of the day, we run through 30-minute classes. The attitude from students is that these days don’t count - and the feeling around school is that the year is already over. It’s a shame, considering our last day of classes is June 18. It’s not an illusion for students - grades close June 9 and the Keystones aren’t fully finished until May 27 (including students being pulled for makeups).

The day before testing began, I had a circle with my students in order to give them space to express their feelings about testing. As an introductory activity, I gave each student 3 post-its, and had them write a thought or feeling about standardized testing in general and the Keystones specifically on each. Then, I had them stick their post-its on the wall on a scale of “Positive” to “Negative”. Below are the results from each of my classes.

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Student thoughts on testing. (Left side = Strongly Positive, Right side = Strongly Negative)

As you can see, the results leaned strongly negative. The most common word was “hate”, followed by “stupid”, “boring”, and “pointless”. In addition to variations on these common words, there were also words like “stressful”, “anxious”, and “scared”. And I can hear the critique: Sure, but no kid is going to love or even like a test.

From my students, though, I see something different. Through the conversation that followed this brainstorming, I got the real sense that my students believe these tests to be harmful to them - and really not supportive of their best interests or their visions of the future.

If you look at our school results, you can see that as the case. No more than 20 percent of our students passed any exam, and under 10 percent passed Biology and Algebra. For our 10th graders, this is a graduation requirement. The “project” replacement requires staff our school doesn’t have. There is a disaster looming when this test becomes a graduation requirement in two years.

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From: http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/6830

I think it’s appropriate that we strip our walls during these days of testing (I was even told by a School District of Philadelphia observer that I needed to erase the date from the board during testing) - because testing forces me as a teacher to strip all value from my practice. I suddenly have to become more authoritarian, uncaring, robotic. These are things I try to push out of my teaching practice, but on these days I feel forced by the state to bring them back in.

Assessments, what we ask students to do, should have real value in this world. What is the value of sitting silently and filling in bubbles? I feel more like a prison guard these days - patrolling the room, unable to speak with or support kids, escorting students to the bathroom. The most meaningful words for nearly 3 hours of my day are “Be quiet”, “No talking”. Even though I’ve spent most of my time doing nothing, I feel drained.

It’s hard for me to continue to subject my students to something they hate - and not because it’s hard, but because they feel it is hurting them and not spending their time wisely. Keystone testing only deepens the disengagement of many of my students with the education system. It is certainly not a motivating factor. This morning, we have 129 students present in the building out of 479. That’s 27%.

There’s a far better way we can be spending our time - activities that empower students, enrich their lives, and make them come alive. We need to opt into opportunities for self-actualization, and opt out of this system of testing that is psychologically harmful, and isn’t preparing our students for success in their visions of their futures.

Out of fear for my job, I continue to proctor this exam. I keep quiet about my feelings on the tests in front of my students in the classroom. But, I’m not sure how much longer I can continue this way. After 6 days of testing, with my soul drained, I’ll hang the student work back on the wall, move my desks back into a square, and get back to real education.

 

Charlie McGeehan is an educator at Kensington CAPA High School, and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators. He can be found @cmcgeeiii on Twitter, and charlie.mcgeehan@gmail.com.

 

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TAG & WE Present: Summer Reading Series 2015

The results are in! Thank you for helping us choose the books for the 2015 TAG and WE Summer Reading Series. We are looking forward to spending time with you this summer to learn together and share visions for how to defend and transform our schools and city.

Take a look through the list below, and sign up for the book groups you’re interested in. We encourage everyone to join-- no education experience required, just the willingness to read good books and talk honestly about tough issues!

If you're interested in helping to facilitate any of these book groups (you don't have to have read the book!), please contact us at contact@workingeducators.org. 

Thanks for helping us make this summer's book groups amazing!

(Click here if you can't see the sign-up form below)

 

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