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.