PHILADELPHIA — The troubled city school system opened three new high schools Monday in an effort to show that officials are committed to innovating and boosting achievement despite fewer resources and the specter of massive layoffs.
Superintendent William Hite enthusiastically greeted the founding staff and students at The LINC school, even while expressing uncertainty about the district's precarious finances. He made $32 million in cuts last month to ensure classes could start on time for all 135,000 public school students.
"I'm really concerned about our ability to sustain the staffing levels we have at the moment," Hite said.
As he spoke, a handful of protesters began a daylong demonstration across town outside the governor's office to call for additional education funding. The district must still close a $49 million hole to maintain services at last year's levels, which Hite has repeatedly called "wholly inadequate."
Officials hope to get that money from a proposed $2-per-pack cigarette tax that state lawmakers are expected to consider when they return from summer recess next week. If the bill is not approved, more than 1,000 pink slips could go out.
The district, one of the nation's largest, has cut 5,000 jobs and closed more than 30 schools over the past few years. It is struggling with a structural deficit caused by rising pension and health care costs and payments to charter schools, which serve an additional 65,000 students.
On Monday, parent Denise Larrabee was among several protesters outside Gov. Tom Corbett's office reading student letters about how the tight budgets have affected them. Counselors, nurses and librarians were among the main casualties last year.
One of Larrabee's children attends the district's high-performing Masterman School, whose librarian position was saved by an anonymous donor.
"We shouldn't be dependent on philanthropy or charity to fund the basic operations of our schools," Larrabee said.
The three new high schools — The LINC, Building 21 and The U School — all received outside money for program design and technology but operate using district funds. Housed in existing buildings, they aim to provide the small, supportive environments that officials say are crucial to raising the district's 64 percent graduation rate. The U.S. average is about 80 percent.
Brittany DeJesus, 14, decided to try The LINC instead of her academically struggling neighborhood high school because she wanted a fresh start. The full name of the new program — Learning In New Contexts — appealed to her.
"I want to try a school like that," Brittany said. "I want to see different teaching styles."
The morning bell even rings at a nontraditional time — 9 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m., reflecting research that shows student performance improves with later start times.
The LINC's curriculum is project-based and "highly personalized" to give students whatever help they need to succeed, said Grace Cannon, the district's executive director of new school models.
"This isn't going to be the school where you open up one textbook and everybody's on the same page," Cannon said.
First-year teacher Breanne Lucy said The LINC proves the city is an exciting place for education innovation. She said she's not going to worry about funding issues.
"There's a lot of energy behind this school," Lucy said. "That drive and initiative will take us really far."
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