Students heighten protests over funding cuts

Local students protest cuts in public education funding at last Wednesday’s rally outside the School District of Philadelphia’s main office. The demonstrators took their protest to City Hall and the governor’s regional office. The city and state raises taxes in support of Philadelphia public schools. — PHOTO COURTESY OF YOUTH UNITED FOR CHANGE

Philadelphia public school students expressed their frustration and anger at funding cuts for public education with a student walkout, raising the intensity of public protests as the last day of school approaches Thursday for thousands of students.

A group of students led by Youth United for Change rallied outside the school district’s main office on Wednesday, just two days after its outgoing executive director, Andi Perez, was among six community activities detained by city police during a protest outside Comcast’s corporate offices at 17th Street and JFK Boulevard.

Protests were organized on Thursday at City Hall and outside the governor’s regional office as a reminder to elected officials of their state-mandated obligation to fund public schools.

Last Monday’s demonstration was planned to coincide with the visit of Gov. Tom Corbett and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who were expected to attend a private fund-raising event in Philadelphia. A rally that began outside the Union League of Philadelphia where the two governors were expected was moved to Comcast headquarters in response to reports that Corbett and Christie were expected to make an appearance there.

No protests are planned ahead of the last day of school for students Thursday. However, at least two more demonstrations are planned for later this month, according to Anthony Hopkins, a spokesman for Public Citizens for Youth & Children.

“We are planning to go to Harrisburg again on June 24th and June 30th to make one last push to legislators to pass the $2 cigarette tax, restore charter [school] reimbursement and give the district the $150 million it has requested from the state,” Hopkins said.

Meanwhile, students have become more outspoken about the impact of funding cuts on their education.

Armani Reeves, 15, a freshman at Olney Charter High School student, stood outside the governor’s office with other students who walked out of school, openly criticizing Corbett for funding initiatives other than public education when public schools are struggling financially. A copy of his speech was provided by Youth United for Change, which supported students during their walkout.

“I am here because I am tired of seeing our school funding go to other matters than to education,” said Reeves, who invited the governor to meet with students. “You need to know how important this is to the future generation of Philadelphia.”

Reeves, interviewed by phone later, said some after school activities were eliminated at Olney Charter School due to the financial crunch. For example, there’s no longer any gaming club, which allowed him to explore computer programming, he said.

Christina Rivers, 18, a senior at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, said cutbacks in staffing due to budget cuts made the college admission process more difficult for college-bound seniors who had access to fewer counselors to guide them.

“We’re lucky to have volunteers come to our school and help with office work,” said Rivers, expressing gratitude for adults who offered help.

Xuan Nguyen, 18, a senior at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts School, said the financial strain was evident on a daily basis as school staff performed their jobs and took on the responsibilities of school staff whose jobs had been cut.

School staff have stepped in, serving as hall monitors, a duty that was assigned to noon time aides, according to Nguyen. Many of those positions were eliminated in layoffs last June.

Funding for some extracurricular programs was eliminated but those after school activities were still up and running only because some teachers volunteered their time to supervise students.

“Teachers pitch in after school. They don’t get paid, but they do it because kids like it [after-school activities],” Nguyen said.

Reach Wilford Shamlin III at (215) 893-5742, or wshamlin@phillytrib.com.

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