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.”