I'll never forget the first day of the 2008 school year, when I showed up for work at Philadelphia's Bartram High School. Everything I needed to know about what I was walking into was graphically spelled out in black, painted graffiti scrawled along one wall: "This school don't get no money." There was nothing surprising to me about that. Bartram serves Southwest Philly, a predominantly black and extremely poor section of the city that vies each year for the lead on lists of neighborhoods with the worst violent crime rates. Back in 2002, the state of Pennsylvania took over the school district in part due to chronic money woes. When I arrived, the building, built in 1939, looked its age: Everywhere were clocks that didn't run, walls with unpatched holes, and cracked floor tiles. What little audio-visual equipment existed looked like it was shipped in a time machine from 1982.
I was at Bartram as a social worker to provide "therapeutic support services," or "TSS," as it is known in the field. TSS workers in lower grades are typically assigned to a single student who is receiving what are called wraparound services as a part of the assistance-and-oversight package created after a state child-welfare intervention. Kids with TSS workers sometimes have been abused or neglected, sometimes are living in foster care, and are possibly also severely mentally ill -- cases vary. At the high-school level, once children have roughly adult-size bodies, and thus an adult's capacity to inflict bodily harm, TSS work like my assignment at Bartram is done in special classrooms where severely struggling, emotionally disturbed and potentially dangerous children can receive intensive focus from a teacher, a teacher's aide, and a team of TSS workers. It's the sort of social-work assignment where being large and male is taken into consideration during hiring. The risk of assault is high.
It goes without saying that the small classroom I worked in was chaotic -- if ten of the twenty or so students assigned to the room, many of whom only came when dragged in by truant officers, showed up on a given day, it was miraculous. Even with a high staff-to-student ratio, our kids were so emotionally disturbed and prone to outburst that just keeping the furniture on the floor was sometimes the best we could manage. Sometimes violence erupted, and chairs or even desks went airborne before we could deescalate the situation. And sometimes, improbably and completely unpredictably, for a short period, the children would settle and -- for whatever reason that we weren't able to divine or systematize -- some small bit of learning would happen. But these street-raised kids were so far behind -- most of them functionally illiterate, many of them still needing to count on their fingers to do basic arithmetic -- that education was not just a hard sell, it was nearly impossible.
Philadelphia's school violence problem was documented over the course of the following year in what would become the Inquirer's Pulitzer-Prize-winning series, "Assault on Learning." The series captured pretty much everything I saw working at Bartram. Routine violence that staff were often unable to contain, that frequently was directed at them, created a terrifying environment for children and teachers alike that went far beyond the already crippling bullying epidemic that has plagued our schools, public and private, rich and poor. Working at Bartram, like the schools profiled in the Inquirer series, didn't feel like working in a school with a bullying problem. It felt like working inside an institution on the verge of collapse, held together by threads that could completely fall apart at any moment.
Bartram, luckily, has endured. In fact, it hasn't appeared on the state's list of persistently dangerous schools since 2007, suggesting that staff there have steadied the ship, despite a chronic lack of resources and being located in one of the poorest and roughest neighborhoods of an infamously poor and rough city. What's unfortunate is that all that hard work could be undone by fiscal austerity. In May, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission announced bone-deep staff cuts to the Philly school district.
Those with knowledge of the system are anticipating a double whammy to the chances of maintaining good order next year in many city schools. Twenty-three schools are closing, meaning that thousands of children will be uprooted and forced to make long commutes through unfamiliar neighborhoods to unfamiliar schools. There is a two-fold potential for violence here: first, in students spending longer periods of time outdoors commuting, especially after school when drug corners are up and running and older boys with guns have hit the streets; second, in the potential for conflict inside schools. Fears of high school gang wars may be overblown -- at first. That's only because Philadelphia's crime scene is notoriously disorganized, characterized by rag-tag teams of corner hustlers and stick-up artists who are rarely loyal to any superstructure beyond whatever block they happen to be repping at the moment. However, the potential does exist for larger criminal groups to begin organizing, as students with allegiances to closed schools in their neighborhoods are met by hostile students at the new school to which they've been sent. This is the greater worry: not that school closings will incite a gang war, since Philly as a general rule doesn't do gangs and hasn't since the 1970s, but that gangs will form in order to provide protection to swaths of uprooted students in generally hostile, unfamiliar territory.
In addition to the school closings, there are the layoffs. Hunger strikes have begun to protest nearly 20% of the school workforce losing their jobs. And while many are understandably seeing red at the thought of more than six hundred teachers seeing pink slips, the real threat -- if one is worried about an epidemic of school violence -- may come from the slashing of 1,200 school aides.
Teachers educate, but aides help maintain the basic order that allows education to happen. I witnessed this time and again working in Bartram High School. Teacher's aides, hall monitors, and other, less-skilled support staff actually do far more than their job descriptions might suggest. In the hallways, where floods of students between classes and at the end of the day can create volatile situations, the aides were indispensable. Often black women who lived in the surrounding Southwest Philly community called out, in strong voices, "Pants up! Hoods down!" over the noise, maintaining a familiar, no-messing-around maternal presence. I saw aides doing social work -- and doing it well, in the absence of robust social worker staffing -- with troubled students, pulling kids that looked distressed or sick into quiet corners to ask them about their families, if they're eating right, if they're depressed or angry.
School aides in places like Bartram aren't just low-level administrative staff. They're sometimes surrogate moms, sometimes drug counselors, sometimes sex educators. They diffuse scuffles that could easily morph into news-making brawls, using their knowledge of the students and the community to navigate interactions with a cultural competence you can't teach in graduate school. They fill a huge hole both in their students' often hectic, troubled lives and in an institution that struggled to financially stay afloat, that they helped prop up -- and that now, without them, seems on the verge of finally sinking.
I think back to working at Bartram High at a time when it was just turning a corner, after years of having a reputation for being one of the city's most violent schools. I imagine all those support staffers who kept order in halls and on the school grounds suddenly missing, and shudder. It may turn out that those employees, low-paid and under-appreciated, were the threads holding the apparatus together. I know that teachers, parents, and students share those fears, and must be looking to the coming year of post-austerity public schooling in Philadelphia with utter dread.