Budget Cuts Meet Philadelphia High School Teacher Stretched Thin

At Overbrook High School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before most students start their day, they will encounter English teacher Bonnie Breese. This petite, African American woman is heard before she is seen in the marble halls of Overbrook High, and is an element to the glue that holds the West Philadelphia school together in spite of  several recent setbacks. Breese starts her school day by delivering the daily announcements, monitoring the bustling hallways, or standing in front of students discussing literary devices. “Once I hit that door, roller skates,” said Breese. “You’re on roller skates all day long.”

Breese taught in Pennsylvania state correctional facilities and counseled in juvenile prisons for five years before becoming a full time public school teacher. “In between jobs and just for the heck of it I would substitute teach, and I just always did that because I was certified .While counseling in the juvenile prison, I would teach in the prison, my third job was to teach summer school,” said Breese. “So here I was working around the clock and I was loving teaching. I said, this is ridiculous, every time I turn around my behind is back in the classroom teaching somebody. Why don’t I do this full-time,” she asked herself.

As Breese began to look for a permanent teaching position a friend suggested that she leave her Williamsport home and move to Philadelphia, where there was a great need for teachers. Initially, Breese says, “I didn’t want to come back to Philly, because of my daughter. She was getting ready to go to high school.” However, Breese settled in Philadelphia and interviewed for a teaching position after passing a rigid examination. “I came down, interviewed, took the test, then interviewed in front of a panel,” said Breese. “They interviewed you in front of six people. They asked questions, then you do a demonstration lesson, all of that and that’s after you pass the test, then they would call you back for the interview. After that you ended up in a number line up, ranking you to see if you could get the job.” “That’s how I started,” she explained.

After 11 years at Overbrook, Breese has seen several changes within the education system and the programs offered at the high school. “The demise of the education system has to do with socio-economic status, clearly,” said Breese. “I see clearly that we’re about to have one of the [largest] divides between the haves and the have nots. We can go across the street to Lower Merion, they’re not having these issues, five blocks away.” In over a decade, Breese saw essential programs disappear from the school. “We had an art magnet program, gone. We used to have a music magnet program, gone. What else,” she asked. In most of the marble hallways there are large murals, serving as reminders of the school’s art program.

Overbrook High School took a hard hit when the school district clamored to close a gap of $629 million. Not only did the school lose funding for program and supplies such as books for the library, but the loss of support staff and several teachers, left the remaining staff thinly spread trying to adequately deal with behavioral problems while providing an education for students.

Teachers, hoping to preserve their after school efforts or activities, write individual grants so that these programs can continue. For Breese, funding was not the driving force to her continuing to provide Radio, the Prime Movers program which teaches students to form their own newspapers and media. Radio is an extensive effort that allows high school students to meet with professional journalists and college students. “It doesn’t matter if I get paid or not,” says Breese, “I’m going to make it happen.” Radio also allows students to connect with the school’s community, building lasting relationships there. Breese started out as a print journalism major, and currently holds a degree in Communication and Education. “The university where I graduated, I was the first and only black editor for the newspaper.” “It’s another job,” said Breese “but the kids want it, you need it, it’s here,”.

Breese, who began teaching full time solely teaching special education classes, has also seen the state of the economy and resulting school district budget cuts affect the roles teachers take on. Outside of teaching special education, Breese also served as program leader, or a small community leader, to the upper grades. Her principal found that these two roles conflicted and moved Breese to teacher English to the higher grades. As a program leader, Breese helps students transition through school with ease. “If they get in trouble in class I should be able to stand for them, behind them, next to them,” explains Breese. Special education is not longer offered at Overbrook, instead students with special needs or learning disabilities have been placed in mainstream classes. “We [had] the autistic class, the M.R class, the LS, life skills and then the life skills support class, and those are your I.Q. 50 and below,” said Breese.

In addition to teaching and acting as program leader, Breese is the sponsor of the high school’s year book and spends her free time policing the halls, making sure that students remain civil and go to  class. This new role came after the school lost four of its school security guards to budget cuts. Breese, also holds detention with several fellow teachers during the week. Last school year, Breese was also in charge of transportation, handing out transpasses to students who live more than 1.6 miles away from the school.“They [the school district] tried to get that out, but its back on budget, said Breese. “They’re ready to stop giving out transportation funds!”

“I love what I do,” said Breese. “I might be mad, taking my shoes off, talking big trash, but I love what I do. I tell the young people. You all teach me like I’m teaching you. They keep me hip.”


In Other News

I am currently working on an article about the Philadelphia’s School District recent budget cuts and impact they are having and will have on both students, the economy and teachers. Very disheartening piece.

Follow Up

I ended my last post wondering how the media and authorities would react to the protest on Wall St. While major news organizations have relaxed their coverage, several  arrests have been made. According to the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street, four protesters have been arrested. A protester recorded one of the arrests and shared the video via social media.

For additional information:




Where Do Your Rights Begin? Where do they end?

This week hundreds of protesters gathered on Wall St., the business capital of New York, to voice their disaproval of the present state of democracy.  The plan was to camp out on Wall St., for days, weeks, months if possible. According to the organizers’ web site, Occupy Wall Street, “We want freedom for all, without regards for identity, because we are all people, and because no other reason should be needed.However, this freedom has been largely taken from the people, and slowly made to trickle down, whenever we get angry.”

When protesters arrived at the designated site on September 17, they found that police barricades on portions of the the street, preventing protesters from fully occupying Wall St. Activist Luella Mink, from the Lupe Fiasco Street team was among the protesters. Through twitter she has shared that musician Lupe Fiasco has played a major role in the protest, donating tents and hosting discussions. According to Mink, it has been mentioned that the bigger tents may be used as learning facilities during the protest.

As the protest continues it will be interesting to see both the authorities and media’s reactions.

Should the Welfare of a Country Trump Individual Rights?

Formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care reform was signed into effect March 23, 2010.The Affordable Care Act (ACA) met opposition at both the federal and state levels. Those opposing ACA either feared that the government was overstepping its boundaries by imposing a government sponsored health care plan, or found the law to be unconstitutional. Is the American government actually breaking the law by trying to provide affordable healthcare for its people?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) aims to provide health care for the millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans by extending coverage to those searching for a policy to cover their pre-existing conditions, providing affordable treatment and medication, in addition to allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26 and providing incentives for small businesses that provide health insurance for their employees. In exchange for the government providing these services, Americans would have to buy a policy before 2014 or pay a penalty fee.

To understand the oppositions’ beliefs one must understand who stands to lose more if the law is not repealed before 2014, when most of ACA’s mandate go into full effect. Before the Affordable Care Act, both pharmaceutical and health insurance companies stood to make millions from Americans, by overcharging for medication and treatment along with cutting cuts by discriminating against patients with pre-existing conditions, and expensive treatments. By placing life and annual limits on health care benefits, agencies were not responsible to cover costs once an individual’s health care plan had reached its limit, whether annual or over the course of a lifetime, leaving patients with chronic illness out in the cold, according to the White House. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, individuals could now find health insurance policies that would cover treatment, procedures and medication for conditions existing before the policy went into effect. The health reform also cut costs of both brand name and generic drugs for adults with Medicare, according to HealthCare.gov. While the former health care system benefited pharmaceutical companies, health insurance agencies and investors, ACA benefits the people, by making healthcare both accessible and affordable.

Before the health reform law was passed it faced much opposition from majority of the Republican Party, as well as a few Democrats. Republicans are well known for disapproving any government inference in the market and industry, thus their reaction to ACA, was to be expected. Shortly following the passing of the healthcare reform there were several courts that declared the mandate that required Americans to buy an insurance policy, or pay a penalty unconstitutional. Among the rulings was one by Federal District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida who found that the federal government had overstepped its regulatory powers as stated in the Constitution. Vinson is only one of the many federal judges, senators, governors, and citizens who found fault with the health reform. Is Vinson’s claim valid? Did the United States Federal Government indeed overstep some sort of boundary? The Constitution is already prone to interpretation by the courts, however under administrative law, the government is expected to serve, protect, and provide essential services to its people. In exchange for such service, Americans are expected to give some individual sovereignty to the local, state and federal governments. One would only hope that health insurance for all would be included in those services distributed by the federal government.

It is hard to believe that such a powerful law that can and will impact the lives of all Americans rests on an individual mandate; pay for insurance, support the costs of insurance for your fellow Americans or pay up. It is possible that the mandate could be altered to exclude a penalty fee, however if an American citizen, by choice refuses to buy health insurance, in the event of a medical emergency will end up paying for the costs of treatment, medicine, doctor visits out of pocket, so why refuse the government-sponsored insurance. Therefore the law is in the best interest of its people and has been implemented to protect Americans in both the short and long run.

If indeed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is repealed, millions of Americans will once again have no access to health insurance, those with chronic illnesses will have to go without treatment, young adults without insurance will have to live cautiously, and the healthcare system will lie in disarray waiting for another reform or decision made by the federal government that will in no doubt be unconstitutional, stopping short of providing the necessary services for citizens. Federal District Judge Vinson’s argument seems to lack validity, would the health and welfare of millions of Americans not trump the childish squalor for power and money? One would only hope so.