The reality of being a young teacher in a low–income school.
Last year was the first year that University City High School had a 9th period. It’s a rough extra 47 minutes. Teachers are tired, and students are particularly restless. Attendance is even lower than the rest of the day. Mr. Max Siefert*, a Social Studies teacher, stands in the middle of a horseshoe of sparsely–occupied desks. The recent Penn graduate wears khakis, a white button–down shirt, brown Doc Martens and a maroon tie with cartoons of US Presidents on it. He waves his arms above his head and shouts, “Folks!” No one notices. Chatter continues.
Students face every direction, except toward Mr. Siefert and the board. Some face the bright green wall where student work is displayed on nicely–framed bulletin boards. A few turn around to talk to the person behind them, facing a white partition, which is retractable but hasn’t been opened in over a decade. Some face a row of bookshelves, holding some of the books that UCHS can’t send home with students because they move or get transferred to other schools too often.
“Folks!” He extends his arms out to both sides and tries to reel in everyone’s attention with his hands. “Folks, folks, folks. We’re all here together. Let’s get us all on the same page.”
The commotion continues. Only one girl in the corner notices that Mr. S is trying to start class. “YO!” Mr. S starts waving his arms in front of his face to get their attention. “If you’re interrupting me at this moment, you’re getting in your own way.”
“What’s better, Tastykake or Little Debbie?” one boy asks a friend across the room.
One girl screams to the student next to her, “Oooh! It’s your birthday? I’m giving you your birthday punches later! Mmmhmm.”
Another boy sings T–Pain’s “I’m in love with a stripperrrrr…”
Somewhat defeated, Mr. S says, “Okay, if you want the directions, come to the tables in the back and I’ll set you up.” The tables in the back are where students usually go when they actually want to do their Social Studies work. The classroom is big enough that the back tables serve as an area to seek refuge — a kind of safe haven, away from the rowdy students that sit at the desks. He repeats himself again as he slowly walks to the back of the room. Two girls meet him in the back. Two other girls quickly follow them and take a seat at the old science lab tables.
UCHS was designed as a science and math magnet school with a specialized curriculum, attempting to take advantage of the nearby universities and the University City Research and Development Center. In 1971, the school opened complete with 71 classrooms and 46 labs. The rooms were designed to have sliding walls, able to transition between large classrooms and small spaces for group discussions and individual instruction.
The curriculum was abandoned within four months of the school’s opening due to lack of funding and overcrowding at nearby high schools. Today, English and Social Studies classrooms are equipped with lab tables cemented to their floors, and teachers try to avoid the partition walls because they can clearly hear the neighboring class.
A student named Jared gets up from his desk and walks toward Mr. Siefert. Jared’s sweater, part of the school uniform, peeks out of his tan zip–up. In addition to the extra period, it is also the first year that students are required to wear uniforms. His navy sweater has a yellow “Promise Academy” logo stitched on the left breast. The “I” in “Promise” has a red bow wrapped around it, so it looks like a rolled–up diploma.
He stops and stands close to Mr. S, holds up his thumb and index finger and pinches about an inch of air. “I’m this close to punching everybody in the mouth.”
As yelling erupts across the room, Mr. S scoots back to the horseshoe of desks to handle the conflict. Jared glances at an accordion of three sonogram pictures of his three– month–old unborn child; he pockets them and sits down at one of the tables.
A few minutes later, a security guard comes into the room, dressed in a blue police uniform but without an official gun belt. All he is equipped with are handcuffs linked around the loop.
He is here for Chantelle, who begins to yell and curse. Mr. S lets the guard take over and moves a few desks to the right to help a student. He doesn’t want to waste anymore of the class’ time on Chantelle’s outburst. She takes her time packing up and Mr. S tries to ignore her, but Chantelle’s comments get louder and more biting as her friends egg her on. He turns to Chantelle and says, “If you keep this up, you’re going to be back here taking this class next year.”
The class quiets down for the first time of the whole period and then erupts in a deep “OOOOH.” His expression stays plain.
Chantelle fires back, “Watch out, Siefert,” as she is taken out of the room.
In the spring of 2010, Mr. Siefert began teaching two classes by himself — half a full–time teacher’s course load — just as former Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman declared University City High School a “Promise Academy.” Promise Academies were part of her larger Renaissance Schools initiative to turn around the lowest performing schools in the district. UCHS was among the many obvious choices for reform. It hadn’t made Adequate Yearly Progress (A.Y.P.), a term established by No Child Left Behind, in years. The Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessment (PSSA) tests all 11th graders in the state on math and reading levels. In 2010, only 3% of UCHS juniors were at a proficient Math level, and only 6% scored at a proficient reading level.
The district was slow to reveal any information on what the Renaissance plan entailed. At first, rumors circulated through the district that UCHS would become a charter school, which would mean massive overhaul and restructuring of the school. In February, the school found out that it would instead get a “Turnaround Specialist” from the district to oversee the reform efforts. A month later, the district announced that all teachers would have to reapply for their jobs and that no more than half of the existing staff would be hired at each Promise Academy.
But because of a complex mix of tenure and unionization, the school district struggled legally to fire teachers. They were left with about half of each Academy’s staff members who couldn’t return to their current schools, but also couldn’t be fired from the district and were forced to transfer the teachers.
UCHS got a lot of “forced transfer” teachers as a result of the Promise Academy reform. In Mr. Siefert’s hallway, some young teachers have started a new tradition, “Frank Fridays,” where they dress like one of their school’s forced transfers. He has been shifted around the district for 30 years, and was newly placed at UCHS as a “district counselor.” Frank has a tendency to wear striped polo shirts with striped ties. He also has a tendency to come into classrooms unannounced and interrupt lessons. Mr. S explains to a colleague that he doesn’t like or participate in Frank Fridays. “But that’s what you get with forced transfers,” his colleague says with a chuckle.
Most of the positions that weren’t taken by forced transfers were filled with 20–somethings, part of urban teaching programs like Teach for America. Many teachers are fresh out of college and teaching for their first time. TFA puts its participants through a short but rigorous summer institute before they have their own classroom in the fall.
“The most visually striking sign that UCHS had become a Promise Academy was the uniform. It was also the first policy to be eaten from the inside out,” he says. In a school where attendance is weather–dependent and one–third of the students got kicked out of their previous school, it’s no shock to see that uniforms wouldn’t fly. Now, it’s rare to see the uniforms.
In addition to extended days and uniforms, UCHS was also mandated to have Saturday school every other week. The poor planning and lack of clear objectives of Saturday school was one of the biggest turnoffs from the reform, according to Siefert. Teachers were under the impression that the administration would plan Saturdays, but the administration thought teachers would plan Saturdays. Neither group received any guidance from the district.
They tried planning field trips, scheduling sports practices, having fun, grade–wide activities and making time for students to catch up on work. They even tried having birthday parties to celebrate students’ birthdays from the previous two weeks.
Mr. Siefert laughs as he describes the various “reboot efforts,” then hesitates, finding the right words.
“It felt like we were trying to build a plane while it was flying.”
A few days into the PSSAs last March, Principal Timothy Stults spoke to the teachers at their weekly staff meeting. Teachers, dazed from a Friday, trickled into the school’s library. Standing at a podium, he thanked the staff for being flexible and helpful during the first week of testing. The PSSAs interrupt the rhythm of the school. The 11th graders spend two full weeks taking the tests.
After talking to many students and staff, Mr. Stults reported, “The overwhelming sentiment is that kids feel really very, very prepared. Now, I know nobody in this room would argue that testing is the be–all–end–all of results.” The teachers chuckle. “Kids are working hard though,” Stults assures.
The district expected math scores to increase by 11% and reading scores by 14%, after less than a year of Promise Academy reform at the school. But the math and reading scores, released this October, only increased by 7%.
Last March, Governor Tom Corbett proposed a budget that included a $1.1 billion cut to public education state–wide. The School District of Philadelphia receives half of its funding from the state and was already facing a large budget deficit. It announced that it would have a $629 million shortfall as a result of reductions in state funding. Wealthier districts can depend more heavily on local property taxes, set independently by townships and municipalities, to compensate for less funding, but budget cuts across the state hit districts like Philadelphia hard.
In June, due to the unprecedented budget gap, the district sent out over 1,300 termination letters to teachers based solely on years spent in the classroom. The district will also eliminate many special education, art and music programs and full service cafeterias, while increasing class size, among other changes.
Mr. Siefert, with only one year at the school, thought he would lose his job. But the district tried to protect Promise Academy staff members from being laid off, allegedly trying to keep the staff consistent in order to see if the reform model works to boost student achievement. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers quickly sued the district for protecting 174 Promise Academy teachers, who should have been laid off according to the union contract. In August, the case was finally settled. 174 Promise Academy teachers with lesser seniority would be laid off and teachers who had been laid off would be called back. Most of the teachers who were re–offered their jobs had already accepted positions at other schools.
“I kept my job by the skin of my teeth,” Mr. S says. Nonetheless, 174 more senior teachers got laid off to compensate for keeping first and second year teachers that work at Promise Academies. Many young teachers were not as lucky.
More and more young adults like Mr. Siefert are becoming teachers with the surging popularity of programs like Teach for America, Teach for All and other fellowships. They expect some semblance of job security or at least the opportunity to get a job in the first place, but given the economic realities facing public schools, the education sector is as volatile as, if not more than, many others. Some want to teach for two years, while others hope to make it a career.
According to the National Center for Education Information, the proportion of public school teachers who have five or fewer years of teaching experience increased from 18% in 2005 to 26% in 2011, and four out of ten teachers with five years of experience or less enter through alternative teacher preparation programs.
Though young and inexperienced, these new teachers are supposed to refresh tired schools. But districts now need to make massive cuts in order to account for budget shortfalls, and to the misfortune of new teachers, it is commonplace to have a “last in, first out” policy.
In other words, the last teachers to be hired are the first to be let go. Teaching ability, effectiveness and dedication to students are not necessarily taken into account. As a result, TFA and other teaching fellowships began assigning more corps members to teach in charter schools, who have some autonomy with staffing and generally larger budgets, but it has still rattled the notion that getting accepted into one of these programs could somehow insulate participants from larger factors.
A 2011 Penn grad wasn’t placed until a few weeks ago, despite accepting her TFA offer in the spring. She has to jump into her first year of teaching over two months into the school year. Another Penn graduate working in a Philadelphia charter school says that she doesn’t feel the same threat of losing her job as her peers, like Mr. S, working in large public school districts, but notes, “The district is very unpredictable and fickle.”
*The name of this teacher has been changed to protect his privacy.
Mady Glickman is a College senior from Princeton, N.J. She plans to become a teacher after graduation.