UPDATE: Actually, Biology Is Offered at Overbrook High School
[UPDATE: 4:25 p.m.]
On Wednesday morning, we published the story below, stating that Overbrook High School has not offered biology to students during this school year. The article was based on information provided on-the-record by a Philadelphia School District spokesperson. The spokesperson originally told us, in writing, that biology was not being offered at Overbrook and that it had not been offered since the start of the school year. What a difference a few hours makes. On Wednesday afternoon, the spokesperson contacted us to say that she spoke with Overbrook’s principal and that the school does, in fact, offer biology.
“Just spoke to the principal at Overbrook HS,” she wrote. “Biology is available to students this school year. There are five sections currently being taught. Students are also enrolled in an online program and a Keystone preparation course. The school is still looking for a certified biology teacher, however.”
When we pointed out that this information was contradictory to what we were told earlier Wednesday morning, she noted that she had been unable to reach the principal in the morning and that “another department provided incorrect information.”
We asked Fernando Gallard, the district’s lead spokesperson, for further explanation. He offered neither explanation nor apology; he simply confirmed that the original information provided by his colleague was wrong and that the new information is right.
Biology is a rite of passage in high school, with all the gross-outs during dissection, the snickers and rude remarks every time the teacher refers to anything involving sex organs. And in Pennsylvania, passing the state’s Keystone Exam in biology is actually a graduation requirement. But at Overbrook High School in the beleaguered School District of Philadelphia, no one is learning biology.
A spokesman for the school district confirms that biology hasn’t been taught to a single student at Overbrook since the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, because there is no biology teacher. “The position has been vacant since the start of this school year,” wrote a district representative.
Instead of biology, students at Overbrook are learning environmental sciences, well known among slackers as the course to take if you don’t want to work very hard. An adequate replacement for biology it is not. The school district also confirms that the person teaching environmental sciences is a substitute teacher who is not certified.
“It brings me to tears, to be honest with you,” says Pennsylvania State Senator Andrew E. Dinniman, who pointed out the problem at Overbrook in an op-ed for Chester County’s Unionville Times in his district, which includes the wealthiest school districts in the state. “It is simply obscene that there is no equity of funding in Pennsylvania, that these young people are deprived of the same opportunities that the students in my district have, because of state policy.”
Dinniman, the Minority Chair of the Senate Education Committee, learned of the vacancy when he was approached by several teachers from his district who were familiar with what was going on at Overbrook. He says he also received notes from students expressing their concerns.
“These students will have tests in April and May in biology,” says Dinniman, referring to the Keystone Exams. “And there is no biology teacher. I’m told there haven’t been labs in a number of years. These kids are going to be stamped failures, and through no fault of their own. In the end, the failure should be stamped on the state legislature.”
And the school district doesn’t exactly sound optimistic about finding a biology teacher anytime soon. “Secondary science is generally a hard-to-fill position,” they told us.
“It’s shocking and unacceptable,” says schools advocate Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “This is a death knell to a student’s future. If they don’t graduate with Biology I, they can’t apply to college.”
Cooper admits that there is a shortage of science teachers out there, and she notes that it’s a lot easier to convince a teacher to go to Dinniman’s district, where the pay is higher and the students easier to teach. “But with a core subject like biology, we need to have a no-excuses framework,” she insists. “This needs to be figured out. It is appalling.”
The school district recently announced that it intends to hire 400 new teachers for the 2015-16 school year. Here’s hoping one of them knows how to teach biology.
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