On Wednesday, April 23rd, a few of the steering committee members of the Caucus of Working Educators sat down for their first meeting with the leadership of the PFT. We presented our platform and asked the leadership what we could do to support the ongoing fight to defend public education in Philadelphia.
The outcome of the meeting was a mutual pledge to work together to strengthen the involvement of the rank and file PFT membership.
In the immediate future, this goal will be achieved through a few specific actions:
- Working to abolish the SRC and regain local control of our school district, specifically by supporting the initiative to put the question to voters through a non-binding ballot question in November.
- Campaigning for a full, fair funding formula in Pennsylvania, specifically a return to the funding levels that were voted on by the PA state legislature under Governor Rendell. This formula would have put Philadelphia’s funding on an equal footing with the rest of the state, but was then reversed by Corbett.
- A concerted push for educators around the city to speak out publicly about how the budget cuts have impacted teaching and learning in every classroom in Philadelphia, specifically by writing opinion pieces and letters and organizing school communities--teachers, parents,and students--to meet with city and state legislators.
The following people were in attendance:
- Kelley Collings, Teacher, Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- David Hensel, Taggart Elementary, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- Evette Jones, Community Engagement Coordinator, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Jerry Jordan, President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Hillary Linardopoulos, Membership & Community Organizer, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Tatiana Olmedo, Counselor, Central High School, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- Larissa Pahomov, Teacher, Science Leadership Academy, Caucus Steering Committee Member
- Dee Phillips, Special Assistant to the President & Vice President Middle Schools, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
- Peggy Savage, Teacher, Richmond Elementary, Caucus Steering Committee Member
We look forward to the next meeting between steering committee members of the Caucus of Working Educators and the leadership of the PFT at the end of May, as well as a long productive working relationship.
The Caucus of Working Educators is a diverse group of PFT members and their supporters who hail from every corner of Philadelphia. Below is the story of one supporter -- a Building Rep from a union family--who chose to join.
What experiences led you to join the Caucus of Working Educators?
For years I have been frustrated and saddened by the state of education in Philadelphia. An emphasis on “basic skills” and standardized testing was not engaging my students or helping them to learn well. As I progressed through my Urban Ed degree at Temple University, I began to understand that urban and rural districts throughout the US (and the world, in fact) were being negatively impacted in much the same way. A respected colleague engaged me in conversations about social justice unionism and connected me with others. I discovered that a number or like-minded teachers shared my ideas.
This is why I joined the Caucus of Working Educators - to fight back on my terms against the forces that are harming my profession and my students – privatization, obsession with standardized tests and the de-professionalization of teachers.
You're a PFT Building Rep. What's the relationship between that role and being a caucus member?
I come from a family of union members. My father was a UFOA delegate for the FDNY and my mother was a member of the NYTU teacher in NYC. I was raised on the conviction that collectively, we can make our workplaces and community better and safer. For three years I have been the PFT Building Representative at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences. I feel strongly that teachers have a right to due process and a need to be heard on issues of safety and academics at our school. I have spent a lot energy engaging my colleagues in the on-going fight to preserve our hard-won rights and to make our school a better place to teach and learn. The Caucus of WE helps me frame our issues and supports my efforts to energize each teacher at my school to fight for the students we teach. WE compliments and amplifies my traditional PFT advocacy.
What's your favorite part of being a caucus member?
The most important thing that the Caucus of WE does for me is to continually help me frame and reframe issues in terms of social justice. PFT members are workers that have earned and deserve respect. We do a tough job and have fought for and deserve basic rights such as due job security and regular raises. We also deserve basic amenities such as potable water, desks and reasonable rosters. Our working conditions are our students learning conditions. Students deserve fair treatment such as safe and clean environment. They deserve a rich curriculum that includes technology, library science, art and music. They deserve schools that are populated with caring professionals – counselors, nurses, therapists and safety personnel. The Caucus of WE energizes and supports my fight beyond the boundaries of the SDP/PFT contract.
What would you say to other educators who are thinking about joining the caucus?
If you are wondering why you should join the Caucus of WE, do so because it is a space where you can determine what your school needs and take action. It is a grassroots group that seeks to unite and empower different kinds of people – parents, teachers and citizens, to act in ways that make sense at their school and in their neighborhoods.
For those of us who choose to enter urban public education, we don't expect to get rich. The fact that we serve our fellow citizens and, in some small way, contribute toward alleviating society's ills is often reward in itself. In exchange, we also like to see every now and then that society appreciates our efforts and our sacrifices.
Unfortunately, the city of Philadelphia, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the School Reform Commission continue to denigrate and degrade us every chance that they get. When we ask for librarians to nurture a childhood spark of inquisitiveness, we get layoff notices and shuttered doors. When we ask for counselors to help guide society's most vulnerable members through the treacherous waters of American inequity, we are given platitudes about how the money was given away in tax breaks in order to spur economic growth. When we dare point our finger at a government that refuses to invest in our children, they shrug their shoulders and tell us it's our fault for seeking a decent living wage.
And what of our "ludicrous" wages? Wages so high, they claim, that the SRC is seeking to forego any cost-of-living adjustments and, in fact, demanding that we give back 13 percent of it.
If salary is a measure of one's worth, then society must despise the educators of our city's youth. Recently, TWU Local 234 was offered an agreement by SEPTA that would give the city's bus drivers a 5 percent cost-of-living wage increase over the next two years. If approved, this means that the average bus driver in the city of Philadelphia would now earn over $68,000. Meanwhile, the average city school teacher currently earns $70,790. If the SRC has its way, that figure would drop to $61,587.
SEPTA, like the School District of Philadelphia, gets a large proportion of its funding from Harrisburg. SEPTA also continuously runs deficits, like the school district, because the job of transporting commuters in one of America's largest metropolitan areas is a Herculean task - as is the job of educating its children.
What, therefore, are we Philadelphia educators left to believe? What should we think when one predominantly state-supported entity gets so much funding that it can afford to offer its public employees a 5 percent pay raise over the next two years, but the other expects its public employees to take a 13 percent pay cut?
Clearly there are priorities and these priorities do not rest with our children.
Perhaps it's time that the teachers of this city abandon their sense of civic duty and their desire to inspire the next generation.
Perhaps it's time for them to exchange their numerous collegiate diplomas for a driver's license and a place behind the steering wheel.
Maybe then we'll finally get some appreciation.
This morning, Caucus Member Larissa Pahomov was interviewed on WHYY about the Philly Teachers Sound The Alarm campaign.
"It's become this absurd new normal where teachers are just expected to bend over backwards to make their classrooms work," said Pahomov. "We do it because we're good people ... but we need the public to know that we're doing it, because it's become invisible to a large degree in Philadelphia."
As for the site's lack of anonymity: "This comes back to a classic union idea, which is that there is strength in solidarity," she said. "There's strength just in making those connections across the district."
The following is an extended version of a letter that ran in response to The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the recent events at Bartram High School.
Dear Ms. Graham & Mr. Purcell,
First, I want to thank you for your in-depth article in today's paper on the troubles at Bartram High School. It was heartening to see that you had interviewed teachers and students rather than solely relying on the input of district and union officials.
As a former teacher at Bartram, however, I saw the real story at the very end of the article. You quoted a teacher who said, "There's a lot of talented, intelligent kids that are getting the bad end of the stick."
In my experience, this is the entire story.
When we talk about education in this city, first we talk about budget crises, then about labor disputes, then about school safety and unspeakable tragedies in the neighborhoods, and finally, if there's any time, we talk about the incredible success stories of the lucky few.
The one thing we neglect to talk about is that our students are just kids. They have favorite subjects and favorite teachers. They hide from teachers whose homework they haven't done. They gossip with their friends and have crushes on their classmates. They are just like any other students in Pennsylvania, except that they are only given half the chance.
When I worked at Bartram, I was asked the same question constantly, by friends and neighbors and strangers on the street, "Isn't that a bad school?" I was not naive enough to believe anyone was referring to quality of education or the poor physical condition of the building. They meant to ask, "Isn't that a school full of bad kids?" The question broke my heart every time it was asked.
As I stated at the start of this letter, I am grateful the safety of our students is being addressed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local media. It is an issue that needs to be made public, and addressed meaningfully by this city. I would love more than anything, though, to see our students portrayed publicly as the human beings they are, rather than statistics, the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. There are, in fact, a great number "of talented, intelligent kids" at Bartram High School, and I'd like this city to see them, to know them, and to give them the attention and the education they deserve.
Bernadette McHenry taught at Bartram for the 2012-2013 school year and was then laid off. She no longer teaches in the School District of Philadelphia.
Last night, our Philly Teachers Sound The Alarm campaign broke the story about the student-made bomb detonated outside of Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences.
The grievance, submitted by Special Education Teacher Ray Porreca, made a clear statement about what had happened at the school:
"We need to understand that the root causes of these types of incidents are political and can be traced back to the budget cuts."
Too often, these tragic incidents appear as headlines without any backstory. Looking at the big picture, however, the pattern of negligence and denied resources is clear. This school year, FSAS has been grappling with the following cuts:
* An 83% decrease in counseling services (from 3 down to 0.5 staff)
* A 75% decrease in school police officers (from 2 down to 0.5 staff)
* A 56% decrease in safety staff (from 9 down to 4 staff)
* A loss of their only assistant principal
These systemic cuts--typical across the District--have ravaged the support systems of the school. In Dan Denvir's City Paper report on the incident, he acknowledged this, but also noted that, "it's difficult to describe the full picture of violent incidents in Philadelphia public schools since they are not always publicly announced."
The Caucus of Working Educators commends the staff of FSAS for two brave acts on Wednesday: taking care of their students during the incident, and also sharing the incident with the general public. By speaking out, Porreca broke the code of silence that pervades our schools and succeeded in calling out the situation for what it is: a systemic failure.
If you are an educator in the School District of Philadelphia, we urge you to share your story with us today at phillyteachers.org. Showing the public the true state of our schools is necessary in order to win back the resources and support that our students deserve.
If we don't speak out now, our struggles will be reduced to yet another headline.
Since the news broke that Marin and Steel Elementary Schools were up for potential charter conversion, there has been a great deal of speculation -- and and a lot of misinformation -- but not many reports about what the situation has been like at the schools themselves. Below is a letter from one educator at Steel describing the scene.
We (principal included) were informed on March 31st -- only after rumors initiated our calls to 440 -- that Mastery Charter will probably be taking over Steel Elementary. They have been sending parents of students from Gratz -- also run by Mastery Charter -- to our events to talk to parents without our knowledge. We were informed that we will have the option to create a presentation for the parents before a vote. We have merely weeks to create a presentation to complete with one that Mastery has had for probably a year. What can we offer except that we are a family? Although I am new here, there are teachers that have been in this building for 20+ years; they have taught generations of Nicetown families.
Since the possibility of takeover went public, Mastery has been allowed to have 6 "representatives" outside the building every day, to try and convince families that they should vote for the turnover. When it rains, they're actually allowed to come inside our building and use our space for their petitioning. They are pulling out all the stops in their attempt to woo parents including dinners, calls, canvassing, etc. Today they even had a small bus out front to take parents on a tour of Gratz.
The girl complained, as well she should! If someone from Mastery had called the school to inquire why this student was late, I would not have been able to release that information or even confirm or deny that the student attends here under the guidelines of FERPA. So why do the representatives from Mastery have the right to ask students right outside our door? They do not.
Representatives from the PFT and AFT have also been out to inform our families about their choices. When they are there, the Mastery reps have been overheard angrily complaining that we are "using their tactics." They were complaining directly under a window and a teacher and her students could hear this conversation.
Our situation also puts the lack of a contract into a new perspective. I am not a conspiracy theorist by any means; however, the fact that more schools are being turned over while the contract is in negotiations is not a coincidence. They are expecting us to accept anything just to have a job. I will not by any means! Our staff is angry. It feels like all this is an attempt to intimidate us, but it is backfiring--we are finding the courage to fight back.
Brandy Meyers, Counselor, Steel Elementary
We are thrilled to announce a new campaign -
As educators, you have all gone above and beyond in your schools–sometimes even compromising your own rights as a working professional–to support your students in the face of terrible conditions. The public has heard a few of your stories via the press, such as how much teachers spend on their own classrooms, but they have no idea how pervasive the problems really are.
In many cases, this negligence also breaks the work rules of the district’s contract with the PFT.
On top of all this, the District is seeking permission to disregard our contract’s work rules, claiming that they don’t benefit students. The PFT leadership has spoken out multiple times against this myth, but many think that work rules are only there to protect teachers, when we know that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.
We are asking every teacher in Philadelphia to report about the real state of their school — to show the negligence of the district and reclaim their right to say something about it.
Sound the alarm together!
All it takes is one paragraph and a photo -- entries will begin tomorrow and continue until we hear from every school in the district! Download our Instruction Kit and then send your entry to email@example.com.
Check out Caucus Members Luigi Borda, Eileen Duffey, and others -- along with dozens of students, parents, and community members -- showing the School District who runs our schools!
The Caucus of Working Educators is a diverse group of PFT members and their supporters who hail from every corner of Philadelphia. Below is the story of one supporter -- an ESOL content-friendly elementary educator and a veteran of the district--who chose to join.
What experiences led you to join the Caucus of Working Educators?
I see joining forces with the W.E. caucus as an extension of the community work that has been evident in my teaching career. In twenty-nine years, I’ve seen the School Board, the SRC, and the state of Pennsylvania try to decimate my profession, my values, and me as a human being. Joining the Caucus of Working Educators reaffirms my belief that every single child and teacher deserves a safe, well supplied community school.
What frustrates you about the current state of public education in Philadelphia?
The political structure in Philadelphia is ridiculous! It is a system that promotes failure and targets the poorest neighborhoods for mass destruction. As a tax-paying homeowner, it boggles my mind to see the destruction of public education. Public education is a constitutional right. Elected officials standing in the way of that right is just wrong!
As a city, state, and federal taxpayer, I support an agenda that elects a school board without politicians. One that allows working educators, fireman, police officers, clergy, and students to decide what is best for this city. As an educator for almost three decades, I’ve witnessed first -hand the erosion of public schools. Working Educators need to stop that erosion and get this city back to a healthy place!
What gives you hope for the future?
What gives me hope is that we have many student, parent, and teacher groups that stand up for what is right. Laying off teachers and assigning thirty-five to forty students in a single classroom isn’t right! We have groups that have been very outspoken and vigilant.
So here it is: basically if you don’t stand for something, you’ll stand for anything! That era of “blind” following is over. Everyone in this city needs to stand with Working Educators and the PFT.
What would you say to other teachers who are thinking about joining the caucus, but have avoided union politics in the past?
We are in the fight of our lives! If educators in the city of Philadelphia truly love their profession, then they need to stand up! Your building representatives can’t do it all. Join the caucus and start protecting your very right to teach. In this fight we have no benchwarmers and sidelined players. If you sat back on the sidelines hoping the coach would call your name, well, you’ve just gotten that call. We're calling your name now! It’s your turn to participate and become a stronger advocate for public education.
What would you say to veteran teachers who have seen it all and may not trust a brand-new union caucus?
It’s funny, this notion of “veteran teacher.” A veteran teacher gives 125% everyday! In return, we are given the most “hardened,” “emotionally unstable” students, and because we handle ourselves well and love what we do, then we get labeled as “veteran teachers.”
Here’s something you do know about veteran teachers: we will always be ready for a fight! If you dare try to take something from our students and our classrooms, you will be faced with a pitbull with an extra set of teeth! Anyone in this business for more than fifteen years loves their profession without a doubt!
I am a veteran teacher! I love my profession and encourage other veteran teachers to join the caucus. If you need a boost and want to have a continuous voice that breathes fire through the streets of Philadelphia, then join in the work!