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by Sue Ann Rybak

Nancy Hoover, who used to be a counselor at Pepper Middle School before the district closed the school in June, held back tears at the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ community rally held Tuesday, Aug. 20, on the steps of J.S. Jenks Elementary School in Chestnut Hill. Hoover, who has been laid off because of the district’s current financial crisis, emphasized the crucial role counselors play in students lives.

Unless the district receives an estimated $50 million in school funding, Jenks may not have a counselor or other essential non-teaching staff in September.

Hoover told a group of more than 20 participants that if the School Reform Commission and Superintendent Hite have their way “your counselor will not be available to help your child in September.” She said Hite has stated that he would try to have counselors available “for the largest and neediest schools.”

“I wonder how he will choose which are the neediest schools because I believe that the neediest school is the one that your child is in,” Hoover said.

She said elementary school children do not have the cognitive or language skills to advocate for themselves.

“I worry about the children who have to deal with problems way beyond their years,” Hoover said. “They often become frustrated and are seen as problem children instead of a child with a problem.”

She said many problems can be “rectified easily” if there is a counselor or other adult there to “help them and guide them through – not fix it for them.”

Hoover shared a story about how her role as a counselor had a profound effect on a student she referred to as “Paula.”

She said Paula’s mother died in December 2012, and Paula and her two sisters were sent to foster homes, when Paula’s grandmother became unable to care for the girls. Paula’s 2-year-old sister Greta had to go to a different foster home because “no one wanted to take three girls – especially one still in diapers.”

“Greta had lost her mother in December and was taken from her grandmother shortly after and then lost two sisters all in a period of three months,” Hoover said. “When people in her foster home and community asked her [Greta] her name, she would reply with ‘Paula.’”

Hoover said Greta’s caretakers were concerned and confused by her response.

“They had no idea why she was saying her name was Paula – when clearly it wasn’t,” Hoover said.

She said Greta was asking for her older sister because “she needed someone that she knew who was close to her and would care for her.”

“Paula was so traumatized by this that she began to act out by using really profane language and threatening fights, and because she was not willing to share her difficult circumstances with anyone, all her teachers and school administrators were really losing patience with her.”

Hoover said as her counselor she was able to coordinate with the Department of Human Services and STS and have her case manager come to the school and meet with the principal and teachers so they were all aware of her circumstances. Hoover added that she was able to get her visiting time with her little sister Greta, and slowly Paula’s behavior issues decreased.

Hoover said sometimes counselors may be the only stable long-term relationship in a student’s life.

She added that because the district closed Pepper Middle School, Paula’s life will again be disrupted and this time she may not have a counselor or other adult she can confide in.

“Our children did not create this financial crisis, and they should not have to suffer its consequences,” Hoover said.

Evette Jones, community engagement coordinator for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the current financial crisis is “unprecedented in the city of Philadelphia.”

She said many politicians and local leaders are products of the Philadelphia’s public schools and “they’ve forgotten where they came from and what it was like to be in a public school setting.”

“Many of the politicians who are making these decisions – believe it or not – were once teachers themselves, but they couldn’t cut it so they went into politics,” Jones said. “They forget that our children who are our future need the same opportunities that they were given.”

She said politicians are trying to “make it appear as though its our fault.”

Jones said politicians and officials want the public to believe that “its our seniority that is causing our children to fail and that’s less than the truth.”

“We are being demoralized,” Jones said. “We are being beaten down. We are being thrown down. We are tired of being stepped on and trodden on.”

She said politicians, leaders and other representatives claim to want full-site selection at every school.

“What they are not saying is – believe it or not – well over 180 schools have full-site selection,” Jones said. “Every school in Philadelphia has the ability to site select some of their teaching staff.”

She said officials are “twisting the facts.”

“This has absolutely nothing to do with children,” Jones said. “This has to do with money and that’s it, and the fact that the politicians in this city and state won’t fund our public schools properly is a travesty.

She said politicians are trying to destroy the PFT union with “children as collateral damage.” Jones said, adding that the PFT represents more than 15,000 public school employees “ who are directly responsible for educating, nurturing, feeding and keeping our city’s children safe while they are in school.”

Jones said the PFT, parents, students, community leaders and faith-based organizations are “fighting for things that create the best learning environment for children” – extracurricular activities, sports, drama, choir, clubs and smaller class sizes.

“We are fighting for technology to give our kids the skills they need in the workplace of the future,” she said. “We are fighting for school services like functioning libraries with a librarian – not just a library but a certified librarian inside.”

She said the PFT is fighting “so our children can function in the 21st century.”

Mt. Airy resident Tom Quinn, 44, who teaches government and history at Central High School, came to the rally with his daughter Nayeli Quinn Camacho, a sixth grader, to show their support. His daughter held a sign that read “Art is still learning.”

Quinn said that the current cuts to education would “undermine the teachers ability to educate children.”

“A lot of teachers are really passionate about teaching in an urban area, whether they are from the urban area or not,” Quinn said.

He said teachers in Philadelphia are paid 19 percent less than most suburban school districts. Officials and politicians are “undermining the good educations that students could be getting” by cutting teachers salaries and critical staff.

“We already lose most teachers in five years because they get burned out,” Quinn said.

He said this situation was not caused by any of the current contract issues but rather about public education and how disproportionate funding affects a city like Philadelphia.

Jones agreed.

She said the PFT wants politicians and government legislators in Harrisburg to “create a full and fair funding formula – not just for Philadelphia – but for the state because Pennsylvania is one of only three states that doesn’t have one in this country.”

“We need a fair funding formula,” Jones said. “We should not have to go around every year begging for money. This [year] is worse because now they are trying to blame our contract on the district’s financial crisis.

“It’s like dangling a carrot in front of kids faces to say you’re not getting your money unless I get what I want,” Jones said referring to Governor Tom Corbett’s withholding $45 million in state funding earmarked for the School District of Philadelphia. “That’s ridiculous and our kids should not have to give concessions.”