When Jennifer Gilken took her class to the playground, the students – ages 3, 4 and 5 – would routinely find beer bottles, broken glass and crack vials.
“The crack vials were attractive to the kids because they have color tops,” Gilken said. They would pick them up and play with them.”
A Head Start teacher at Ferguson Elementary School, Seventh and Norris Streets, for preschool children at or below the poverty line, Gilken discovered the harsh conditions of Philadelphia public schools. This was her first job after graduating from Temple’s School of Education with a triple certification in elementary, early-childhood and special education.
After one year, she went to graduate school at Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania, then landed a job in a suburban district.
While the teacher shortage in urban areas worsens, suburban schools receive a surplus of teachers and applicants. Several factors make teaching in suburban schools more attractive. A major issue is the relatively low salary of Philadelphia teachers.
“They start out not too far away from what is offered in suburbs but the gap increases quickly as you have more experience and more educational background,” said Scott Fina, Director of Field Placements for Temple’s College of Education, which each year graduates about 400 students certified in teaching.
The salary gap between public and private schools is about $5,000 to $10,000 for teachers first coming out of school. Starting salary for teachers in Philadelphia is about $30,000.
“Even before salaries, teachers need support, supplies and good working conditions,” Gilken said.
Pennsylvania Department of Education figures show that nearly 70,000 students have graduated with teaching degrees from state colleges and universities in the past five years. Public schools continue to be understaffed as 19,000 of these graduates have stayed in the commonwealth.
According to Fina, a survey conducted by Temple concluded that 40 percent of Temple students who graduated with teacher certification between 1991 and 1997 went on to teach in Philadelphia. The teacher shortage in Philadelphia public schools covers all grade levels and subjects, although there is a pressing need specifically for bilingual and special-education teachers.
“A lot of people I graduated with would prefer subbing in the suburbs rather than teach full-time in an urban school,” Gilken said.
As an undergraduate Gilken was steered toward public schools with opportunities to be a student teacher in Philadelphia public schools. While she and many others started out wanting to stay where the talent is needed, the conditions were frustrating.
“I saw rats in classrooms, we were without supplies, classrooms were dirty, and there’s a lack of security,” Gilken said.
As a student teacher she had to work with one set of workbooks from the ’60s. When the copying machine was frequently broken, she would pay for the copies herself.
“That was the rule as opposed to the exception, she said. “Some public schools are great, but that’s not where the job openings are.”
Most schools of education, including Temple’s, are making an effort to steer students into high-need subjects and urban areas, but their efforts are producing few results.
“Temple did a great job of preparing me and others to meet the needs of public urban schools,” Gilken said. “It’s the schools themselves that are falling short of meeting the needs of teachers,”
The bureaucracy of public schools adds to the challenges of being a successful teacher.
“I’m not sure if the principal knew my name,” Gilken said. “There was little support within the school. It becomes a choice of personal well-being.”
Situations such as these drive teachers away from public schools where they are seriously needed. The school year in Philadelphia began with 250 vacancies, many still unfilled.
“Maybe a hundred classrooms are being held down by long-term substitutes or teachers who had to get emergency certification,” Fina said. “But if they get support from the principal, they can work it out.”
Since Harrisburg is trying to institute early-retirement incentives and reduce class size, the problem is only expected to get worse. In the fall, the Philadelphia school district may need to hire more than 1,000 more teachers, according to Fina.
Gilken currently works as Education Director for a Head Start program in New York City. She teaches a class of 22 preschool children from housing projects. Conditions in New York are similar to those in Philadelphia. Gilken says she spends up to $500 a year of her personal money on her students. New teaching applicants want to know if the neighborhood is safe.
Gilken suggests reinstating the loan forgiveness program to bring more teachers into the Philadelphia school district. “I paid for graduate school myself,” she said. “Getting loan forgiveness really made a difference to me in going to New York.” Loan forgiveness or scholarship programs are offered in 27 states to attract new teachers, but Pennsylvania’s loan forgiveness program has been without funds for years.
The residency requirement has been relaxed so teachers now have three years instead of one to move into the city from when they start teaching, according to Fina.
Philadelphia is currently working to settle a budget, but the deficit is close to 70 million dollars. Governor Tom Ridge recently asked for $1 million from the state government to take over the Philadelphia school district if a large budget deficit is passed.
“If the district had any money…they would want to raise salaries, but there’s also competing needs, buildings, textbooks, resources, computers, and those things,” said Fina.
As an administrator, Gilken tries to provide support and create a positive working environment. She continues to work in public schools because that is where she feels she can make a difference: “The key to change is having good people where they are most needed.”