After unprecedented financial crisis, Philadelphia students head back to changed schools

Before they start the school year together, the staff at the Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts will grieve: They'll hold a wake of sorts for laid-off colleagues, reviewing a DVD of their photos and recounting their accomplishments, and then they'll head across the street to eat.

Such is life in the beleaguered Philadelphia School District, where the severity of layoffs and school closings have made this latest financial crunch unlike any other in recent memory as students get ready to go back to school.

"There's a sadness. It's a sadness that is deep," said Kensington principal Debora Borges-Carrera.

The layoff notices that went out in June — 20 percent of the district's employees got pink slips — swept out practically every employee aside from teachers and principals: lunchroom aides, secretaries, classroom aides, guidance counselors, librarians, nurses and assistant principals.

A fight between the city and state over funding one of the nation's largest school districts, which serves 190,000 traditional and charter school students, has inspired fasts, rallies and even a threat by the superintendent not to open schools. That fight continues, with pressure now on teachers to accept deep wage cuts, while a pledge by Mayor Michael Nutter to borrow $50 million against future sales tax receipts has prompted the rehiring of some laid-off staff and encouraged the superintendent to open schools Sept. 9, as planned.

In the meantime, parents, teachers and principals are increasingly looking to outside sources of money, such as nonprofit community groups, charities, corporate donors or fundraising drives to pay for staff, tutoring, afterschool programs and other things that the government used to underwrite. Volunteerism is on the rise, and principals are scrimping like never before.

Morale is heavily damaged: Teachers are angry at the smaller paychecks they're being pushed to take, and some parents are questioning whether what's left is worth saving. Those who are politically active in this big Democratic city tend to blame the Republican governor, Tom Corbett, who pushed through deep, budget-balancing cuts in state aid two years ago while seeking to advance the fortunes of private, parochial and privately operated, publicly funded charter schools.

Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, says the administration has demonstrated its support for schools, but the teachers' union must recognize the district's fiscal realities and make concessions.

Regardless, the steep cuts have left Tomika Anglin disgusted and planning to homeschool her 12-year-old daughter.

"The situation isn't getting better, and the people in charge of making the decisions are not considering what is best for the children," Anglin said. "And if the people in charge are not making the best decisions for the children, I can't let my child be a part of that."

Rebecca Poyourow choked up when thinking about how finances at Cook Wissahickon Elementary School have worsened despite efforts by her and other parents to fundraise, volunteer in afterschool clubs and organize a tutoring program to offset the effects of cuts in state aid a couple of years ago.

"I feel like we're staring into the abyss," Poyourow said. "I thought we could just put our hands in and make it work."

Sabra Townsend hired a lawyer after her son's high school in the Germantown section of the city was closed and he was rejected by the other five schools to which he applied - including the one that was supposed to take children from the closed school.

"I'm sitting here like, 'What do you expect me to do?'" Townsend said.

To be sure, many parents haven't followed the debacle and the little they've heard about it hasn't shaken their intent to send their children back to school. When Borges-Carrera asked parents at freshmen orientation day Thursday how many knew there would be no guidance counselors in the school, about half the hands went up.

Josh Rodriguez, a senior at Kensington, said he will miss the guidance counselors, noting that he went to one practically daily for advice on everything from girlfriend problems to homework.

"She was kind of like my mother in the school," Rodriguez said.

Still, Rodriguez said he would try to temper the loss by being a role model for freshmen. It's a theme that Borges-Carrera suggested is emerging: Parents, friends and student leaders such as Rodriguez are stepping up where government is not.

"In the midst of chaos," she said, "there is opportunity."