For 23 years, the last 12 of them as a kindergarten teacher at the Penn Alexander School in University City, Penny Silver has educated the Philadelphia School District students and parents lucky enough to have her as a teacher.
Following the final bell of the 2012-2013 school year on June 21, Silver locked her classroom for the final time. The two-time runner-up for the district’s Teacher of the Year Award says that the “Doomsday Budget” crisis looming over the coming academic year has left her no choice but to leave the only job she ever wanted. The uncertainty over the coming contract talks, as well as a concerted push by the district to alter the way that accrued sick and personal days are accounted for upon retirement proved to be the last straws for her.
The 63-year-old Silver says she knew she wanted to be a teacher from the beginning. The Wynnefield native began teaching immediately after graduating from Temple University in 1971, including an 11-year stint at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Philadelphia (before it became Perelman), one year as a pre-school teacher at the Klein JCC and a seven-year hiatus at home with her children.
The following excerpts are from an interview that took place on Silver’s final day of teaching in the district.
Why have you decided to retire now?
What the district is doing is very purposeful — unconscionable, but purposeful. They are trying to eliminate people like me, teachers at the higher end of the pay scale, who have been teaching for a while, from the district. Why pay us when they can have younger teachers and pay them half of what they’re paying us? This is just not about children anymore.
Did the budget cuts come as a surprise to the teachers?
The level of cuts came a as a huge surprise. Getting rid of counselors, art teachers, librarians, music? What are they thinking? The playing field is not going to be equal for our kids compared to the suburban kids. And passionate parents who believe in urban education are going to move out of the city, because that education is not going to be provided for their children.
What do you think will ultimately happen?
They keep touting this wonderful new tax base the city has, with all of the young families. Well, these young families are going to leave this city. And that is going to leave a terrible abyss, because that tax base will be gone when they move to the suburbs.
This system can be great, if people don’t use money inappropriately and put it where it belongs: with the children, for the children. It hasn’t been that way for many, many years. And they say teachers need to make concessions? We didn’t mismanage the money! We are in here, working hard every day, most of us. Those that are not, they need to go. And the district needs to figure out a way to do that. I think it’s just a game of brinksmanship and the kids hang in the balance. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Would you ever consider changing your mind about retirement?
If the two sides came back tomorrow and said there would be no changes, sure. But I can’t afford to lose what I’ve worked so hard for. There’s not enough time left to make it back. And I don’t want to work in a system that has been beaten down. I’m tired of reading about people who aren’t doing their jobs. Why not come and see what we do at the schools that are working? Come see what we are doing right. We write our own curriculum. We teach based on the needs of the children and the assessments we do, we have a wonderful administration that gives us the freedom and respect — that’s how we teach our children. It’s not rocket science.
If you could get parents to understand one thing about this crisis, what would it be?
My wish is that parents never stop advocating for their children. Parents are going to push this forward and make the changes. Teachers are ineffective, but parents’ voices will be heard. If they stop, if they are silent, if they are complacent, the changes won’t happen. This is a system that can work — if enough people will fight for it.