Submitted by Angela Chan on February 7, 2012
As a classroom teacher, my position would likely not be among those eliminated within the next weeks to close the $61 million budget gap by June. Still, it was painful to read the list of items on the SRC’s “Options Menu” during that Thursday, January 19th meeting. How many more colleagues’ lives will be affected by massive layoffs, and how will the students cope? School police officers, nurses, bilingual counseling assistants, teachers, music programs, athletics—how do they matter in the lives of our students, and how do students experience the loss of these resources and relationships?
Like many public school students in Philadelphia, my students are adjusting to the instability of losing teachers and staff who were laid off last year. This year we are doing our best to live with our losses and work within our new school community. Besides the sadness of severed relationships with caring adults who are no longer here, we are adjusting to the loss of basic things to run classrooms. When we faced a shortage of trash bags, my class had a community meeting and graciously decided to bring in plastic grocery bags so that we can continue to separate our breakfast trash and not exacerbate the rodent problem in the school. Now, the most recent budget news threatens to disrupt yet again my students’ lives when we have barely come to grips with our losses from last year.
My recent conversation with my third grade class on the looming cuts started after a PSSA prep activity when a student asked how important this test is. I tried to explain that it doesn’t affect their report card, but that our school really needs to do well. They asked what would happen if our school continues to not do well, and I replied honestly: In the long run, I really don’t know for sure. To see an adult in a state of uncertainty conjured up the memory of losing their beloved second grade teacher when she was laid off last year. They remembered that sometimes we have no control over our circumstances, and they asked if something like that would ever happen again. I assured them that their PSSA scores are not causing the budget cuts, but I also decided to tell them of the kinds of cuts we can expect to see in the next weeks and months.
When I first looked at the Options Menu to close the $61 million gap by June, my heart sank. This information is posted here at the Notebook. The options included further reductions in school-based services that would save $15.2 million by June. A few of the items would further devastate my particular school community. Indeed, I have thought much about how to reach our SRC Commissioners and our newly hired Chief Recovery Officer, Mr. Knudsen, to let them know the human side of what these cuts would mean. They do not even know my students, have never met them yet are making critical decisions that affect their very lives and dreams. How do we personalize the lives and stories of students and teachers to our leaders?
If they further reduce the English Language Learners budget and eliminate the positions of the rest of the Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BCAs), they would save $1.6 million. For my school with a heavy immigrant population, that would further disenfranchise my students who expect to see their ESOL teachers and receive extra attention and help in adjusting to a new language and culture. Our BCAs work tirelessly to connect our school with the community. Losing these resources is not only a disservice to the immigrant student population, but also affects all mainstream students, stretching even more the limitations of the classroom teacher. I wish I can share with the Commissioners and Mr. Knudsen the anguish I feel when I realize how much potential each student has yet cannot help them move beyond certain obstacles because of lack of time and resources.
Eliminating the rest of instrumental music would save $3.3 million, but it would also take away an enriching experience for many of our students who are excited to play an instrument. My third grade students glow with excitement every Thursday when their instrumental music teacher comes. They talk about learning how to play a new note and proudly share with me when they have memorized a song. They frequently remind me that they will have their first stage experience performing with the school string orchestra in the spring concert. As a teacher, I wish I can share with the Commissioners and Mr. Knudsen the joy I feel when students are so stimulated and dedicated, and I also want them to know how hard it is to think about taking my students’ instruments away.
One of my students recently declared that she wants to play in a famous orchestra one day. And perhaps that’s why these cuts are so painful; the cuts mean more than just particular programs and positions, it’s the realization that we are leaving behind the dreams of our students as we are crippling our own schools.
Although my conversation brought a lot of sadness to my class, I wanted to explain to them that their dreams are important to us, that the instability and losses they are about to face are not due to the fact that adults who work with them everyday are giving up on them. I wanted to make sure they know that their teachers are not choosing to leave them, and that the responsibility lies with the adults who have the most control over the spending and allocation of funds at the top. I let them know that there are adults rallying against these cuts every week, and that we are here to stand up for their needs and their dreams.
Our conversation brought tears to some students as they remembered their 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Salazar, who was laid off last year. One student said that she “really miss Ms. Salazar”. I comforted her, fighting back my own tears, and said that I really miss her, too. Another student asked, “If we keep saving trash bags, can we bring back our teachers?” Their innocence melted my heart. The best I could do was promise to get in touch with Ms. Salazar and have students write to her. Another student wanted to know if our school “would become a deserted place if everybody leaves.” I said no, we are here to give them a quality education, and no matter what happens, we will make sure that continues. I know that my colleagues and I would step up to the plate no matter what happens, but I also urge our district leaders to do the same and stand up for the lives and dreams of our children.