Philadelphia’s largest teachers union plans a series of neighborhood rallies aimed at raising public awareness and community support for students — who could return to school in September with thousands of district employees still laid off.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ spokesman George Jackson said budget cuts translate into loss of programs, and students from low-income households are impacted disproportionately because their families can’t afford private lessons for their children or additional costs of sending them to learning camps or local sports leagues.

“That’s why we’re going neighborhood to neighborhood so we can highlight how these budget cuts are going to impact individual schools,” Jackson said during Tuesday’s kickoff rally outside Julia De Burgos Elementary School on Lehigh Avenue, between 5th and 6th streets.

“These cuts have real consequences in terms of programs. These cuts hit these communities harder than anybody,” he said.

The next rally is set for Tuesday at South Philadelphia High School.

With the start of a new school year just weeks away, leaders of PFT, which represents 15,000 members, are bluntly stating that schools will be unsafe without essential staff, such as school safety aides and noontime aides who contribute greatly to the safe and smooth operation of schools by helping school staff supervise students in the cafeteria, hallways and playgrounds.

In response to questions about minimum staffing levels, a Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman cited Public School Code 1402, which mandates at least one nurse per 1,500 students.

DOE spokesman Tim Eller also referred to state regulations that show paraprofessionals and educational interpreters must be on hand to work with students with disabilities. Staffing levels may be inadequate based on an employee’s status as a full-time, itinerant, or supplemental worker, based on additional factors such as the total number and type of disabled students assigned to that person.

With so many key personnel laid off from their jobs, parents and district employees worry about school and student safety.

Demonstrators chanted loudly, in unison, “Banks got bailed out. Schools got sold out.”

“We have to be louder. We have to be stronger,” Evette Jones, PFT’s community engagement coordinator, said in closing remarks at Tuesday’s opening neighborhood rally. “We have to let them know, we’re not taking this anymore.”

The School Reform Commission, which oversees the district, committed last week to bringing back one secretary for each school and restoring funding that allows recall of laid off employees and resumption of several key programs: athletics, an instrumental music program offered on a rotating basis in elementary and middle schools and remedial programs at the district’s lowest-performing schools.

Jacqueline Gonzalez, 31, of North Philadelphia, said it was important for the sake of the children that the district find a long-term solution for it’s financial woes.

“We need nurses, especially me. I have kids who are asthmatic and they need nurses to give them medication,” said Gonzalez, who has three daughters, Karylise Cancel, 12; Kiara Rodriguez, 9; and Kayssie Rodriguez, 5.

Her daughter, Kiara, said she keeps her inhaler with the school nurse so that she can receive medical care and supervision from a professional.

Some teachers were critical of the SRC decision to send more than 300 students displaced by the closing of Fairhill Elementary School to De Burgos Elementary School without increasing funding for the corresponding increase in enrollment. According to PFT estimates, De Burgos’ enrollment would go up by 60 percent. Some displaced students could also decide to attend Potter Thomas Promise Academy.

Kiara Rodriguez also alluded to the importance of reinstating funds for teachers and staff during the rally.

“We need to have nurses, teachers, and people that will guide us to a better education,” she said. “If there is money for other things in the city then there should be money for our education.”

 

Contact staff writer Wilford Shamlin III at 215-893-5742 or wshamlin@phillytrib.com.

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