My name is David Hensel. I am the PFT Building Representative at Taggart Elementary and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators. The United Teachers of Los Angeles went on strike on Monday. Over 50,000 educators, parents, students, and community members marched through the streets of LA as demands for essential supports that should be a given in any city went ignored by an out of touch CEO and school board with terrible plans to divide up the district and destroy public education in the city, creating a terrible ripple effect felt all across the country. What UTLA is asking for are the basics that every successful school district needs. An investment in educators, more teaching and less testing, librarians and libraries in every school, more counselors, more nurses, healthy schools free from lead, mold, and asbestos, a moratorium on reckless charter growth, and making education the city’s top priority. While the nation’s eyes are on LA, we need to take a good hard look at some of what the UTLA is asking for and focus on how those demands relate to what is so very badly needed here in Philadelphia.
Demand 1. More teaching, less testing
If we want to prioritize reading on level by fourth grade, we have to look at how we spend money here. It is not just all the tens of millions that is dumped into paying for all these tests. It’s all the coaches, consultants, cohorts, computer programs, and confusion that goes with one initiative after another being dumped on the teachers and then soon discarded. It’s all too much. A perfect example being the 17 million dollar CLI contract that is up for renewal. Often the success of CLI depends on the coach, but even the best coach can’t give the kids what they need the most and that is teachers who can work directly with them to improve their reading. With all these millions you approve each month, let’s start thinking about how many reading specialists, ESL and learning support teachers, and SSA’s we can get for all that money. Let’s free our teachers up from the ever increasing amount of testing, paperwork, and far too extensive lesson plans and let’s give them the autonomy and ability to teach. “More teachers, less tests. More teaching, less testing.” This should be the motto of this school board.
Demand 2. Libraries and librarians in every school.
This should be a given in LA and Philadelphia. Some will say how do we pay for it? We pay for it by making it a top priority. One way to do that is for district and city leaders to meet with the heads of our universities and let them and the public know that is well past time for PILOTS to fund our school libraries. What kind of person who is regarded as an educational leader could fight against school libraries for our kids? What kind of advocates for education are we if we do not fight to make this a reality. Along with that, we must fully fund our neighborhood free libraries. What good is a local library to a kid that is barely ever open at times when they can use it. Enough is enough. Let’s fund our libraries already.
Demand 3. A nurse in every school, every day.
I’m sure many are thinking that after some terrible times spiked with the pain of awful tragedies, we have nurses in every school all day but do we? My understanding is Kelly Services has now taken over management of the pool of school nurse substitutes and it has been a huge mistake and a disaster waiting to happen. Now we seem to have little or no substitute nurses to cover when a nurse is out. Recently, a school nearby had a nurse vacancy, and a cohort of different nurses at neighboring schools had to leave their school each day and take turns doing shifts, leaving their own schools without nurses. This is an extremely dangerous practice. I fear there will be another tragedy occurring when there is an emergency and no school nurse present. We have to do something about this and soon. Please. Let’s fix this now.
Demand 4. More counselors in schools.
I’m pretty sure every school in the city far exceeds the recommended student to counselor ratio of 250-1. Many of our schools far exceed that and we have to get those numbers down. Our students are dealing with huge challenges brought on by so much trauma, economic insecurity, and a society that is failing to invest in their futures. Our counselors work so incredibly hard and carry a heavy burden of the weight of all that our kids are dealing with today. The best way we can support our counselors is by lowering their case load and driving the student to counselor ratio here way down.
Demand 5. Investing in educators
As we get ready to begin the now national Black Lives Matter week in our schools here, there has been much important discussion from the district about prioritizing the hiring of more black educators. While there are some admirable initiatives being created by the SDP, the best way to create a more diverse, talented, and dedicated pool of applicants is to greatly increase the starting salary for educators. The best way to recruit someone is to first make it financially viable to have a career here. To avoid high turnover and to retain educators who now struggle with terrible student loans, rising rent, home prices and inflation, and having to buy their own supplies, the next contract offer we all sign off on needs to not have bonuses for some, but raises for everyone, across the board, each year. Lastly, with a workforce that is 80% women, we need paid maternity leave. We don’t have to wait for the next contract, we can start working on that now. Invest in our educators.
Our AFT sisters and brothers in LA are fighting for what we consider essential, must have levels of support for our students and their families. Please, learn from the terrible mistakes of the LA school district CEO and school board and trust that it doesn’t have to be that way here. We can work with each other to achieve the kind of contract that will give our staff, students, and families what they desperately need. My biggest ask of you right now is for transparent communication with everyone invested in public education here. We need you to stop holding “open” meetings during school hours when very few if any of us can attend. All public meetings must be after school. I also hope that whenever possible, you’ll make time to talk to stakeholders in informal settings where we can have more in depth discussions. The challenges are great but we can meet them together, for the good of everyone. Thank you.