Philly schools moved 50 teachers weeks into the school year because of ‘leveling’

Reassigning teachers based on enrollment, the superintendent wrote, was necessary “in order to serve our students equitably.”

Telling her students she was leaving Martin Luther King High School was one of the most difficult conversations she’s ever had, said Karlynne Staten.

The move wasn’t by choice. Staten, a special education case manager, had been informed by King’s principal that she was “leveled” out of King and had to move to another school a month after the year began.

Some of Staten’s students were crying, she said. Everyone was angry. Some students were so upset they eventually led a rally outside the building.

“The district does not understand the connections you make with these kids,” said Staten.

King was supposed to lose six positions total to leveling, the district process of adjusting staffing based on actual student enrollment, several weeks into the school year. Ultimately, the school’s principal was able to successfully argue for the jobs of Staten and three others; it ended up losing two positions.

Though leveling isn’t a practice exclusive to Philadelphia, it’s unheard of in better-resourced districts, and even other similarly challenged urban districts have stopped doing it. It works this way: Schools are allocated positions based on their projected enrollment. But through leveling, those with unexpectedly large classes get new staff, and those where fewer-than-anticipated students show up lose staff to the oversubscribed schools. (Without the practice, schools with low enrollment would have smaller class sizes, and schools with higher enrollment would hire extra teachers.)

It’s complicated, for sure. In past years, leveling was blamed on economics, but this year, it’s mostly about a teacher shortage. Though about 96% of its teacher positions are filled, hundreds are still open. (The district has declined to give an exact number.)

District-wide, 50 teachers were forced to change schools.

In total, 58 schools lost teachers — an 87-position reduction. Fifty schools gained a cumulative total of 66 teacher positions.

Why did the district reassign teachers?

In a letter sent to families and staff Monday, Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. said he understood leveling was tough for those who must lose teachers, shift classes, or move jobs themselves.

But leveling, the superintendent wrote, was necessary “in order to serve our students equitably. Underfunding has significant consequences for our schools and students, particularly the ability to recruit, hire and onboard high quality teachers as quickly as we would like.”

Watlington also pointed to the teacher shortage facing nearly every district in America. It’s particularly pronounced in Pennsylvania.

“These challenges help to explain why leveling is so important. In order to serve our students equitably, and support all students in receiving a high-quality education from an excellent teacher, we must reassign teachers from our under-enrolled schools to over-enrolled schools,” Watlington said.

Can school communities prevent ‘leveling?’

Principals have the ability to make cases for why they need certain positions despite the enrollment numbers; officials have said they prevented leveling at 46 schools, retaining 94 teachers who would otherwise have been moved.

Like at King, some communities rallied to try to halt leveling. Parents at Henry Houston Elementary in West Mount Airy, for instance, protested the loss of a fifth-grade teacher.

And at Marian Anderson Neighborhood Academy — formerly Chester Arthur Elementary — parents and neighbors sent a petition to the school board asking its members to step in and halt leveling. Anderson struggled with a high number of physical incidents, staff turnover, and negative climate last year, parents said, and needs time and staff to recover.

It’s no secret the school is shrinking in fifth grade, the parents wrote; at many neighborhood schools, parents with the ability to do so move their children elsewhere.

“Disrupting the current 5th grade social and academic dynamics at this challenging moment is not the right way to address this ongoing problematic enrollment pattern,” the parents’ petition said. “To the contrary, it gives a clear message to the K-4 families in the neighborhood, and this message does not encourage them to stay after 4th grade. If the district wants strong, desirable neighborhood schools through 8th grade, it needs to invest in it; providing continuity is one way to achieve that.”

Kait Yulman’s fifth-grader’s class at Marian Anderson just ballooned from 14 to 27. The teacher is great, but it’s a lot of kids in a too-small space, Yulman said.

It’s a tough spot for Anderson, but the school staff and community will figure it out, Yulman said. But the practice is disruptive in ways large and small and pits under-resourced schools against each other.

“The school district is working against its own interests,” said Yulman. “This isn’t frivolous. This isn’t ‘Oh, we couldn’t get the nicer pencils.’ These are essential roles.”