RoboLancers Platform to Save Robotics Programs and Public Education in Philadelphia

We, the members of Central High School’s RoboLancers, FIRST Robotics Team #321, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the “RoboLancers”), recognize the impact of inadequate funding to public schools and the deficits caused by the budget crisis in education.  The current budget crisis negatively impacts every public school student and educator in the City of Philadelphia.  As an organization affected by this crisis, we wish to make a statement to our School District and our local and state government:

WHEREAS, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), the School Reform Commission (SRC), Mayor Michael Nutter, and Governor Tom Corbett have created and/or otherwise facilitated a $300 million deficit through budget cuts, mismanagement, and squandering of federal funds; and

WHEREAS, this deficit has forced Superintendent William R. Hite, Jr., Ed.D. (Dr. Hite), to place extreme austerity measures into effect in the public schools within the SDP; and

WHEREAS, the SRC has all but expressed its intention to dismantle the School District, by “[closing] 40 schools next year and an additional six every year thereafter until 2017,” leaving only “20 to 30 schools [to] be placed into ‘achievement networks’ where public and private groups would compete to manage the networks” (Thomas Knudsen, Chief Recovery Officer for the SRC, May 2013);

WHEREAS, these extreme austerity measures have led to the following conditions at Central High School, as well as most schools in the SDP:

  • Oversized classrooms with as many as 47 students per class;
  • A lack of guidance counselors, nurses, non-teaching assistants, librarians, assistant principals, school operations officers, and secretaries;
  • Effective and beloved teachers being laid off;
  • Teachers being forced to teach outside of their appointed area;
  • Support staff (deans, department chairs, activity sponsors) being forced to teach full course loads, eliminating their only form of compensation and their ability to complete their duties;
  • Classes being held in auditoriums;
  • The elimination of the mentally gifted program;
  • Insufficient textbooks at the start of the year;
  • A closed and therefore inaccessible library; and
  • The ending of many programs exclusive to Central High School, including the advanced research program and the incredibly popular shadow program;

WHEREAS, Dr. Hite, the SDP, and the SRC are negotiating with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) for the following concessions by the teachers:

  • A longer school day;
  • The elimination of preparation periods;
  • The elimination of a 33 minimum class size; and
  • Pay cuts as high as 13% for overworked teachers;

WHEREAS, all funding for robotics-related programs was eliminated in 2011;

WHEREAS, the students who make up the RoboLancers have become disenfranchised by the actions being implemented by the SDP, SRC, the Mayor of Philadelphia and the Governor of Pennsylvania, which actions can only be described as failures and which the media so emphatically states will cause the demise of public schools in Philadelphia;

WHEREAS, the RoboLancers recognize that these decisions have already led to a reduction in robotics programs in Philadelphia public schools and could lead to their complete eradication.

WHEREAS, the RoboLancers believe the education that students receive in project-based programs like robotics provide opportunities for a more in-depth, comprehensive understanding of subjects than traditional preparation for standardized exams like the Pennsylvania Keystone Tests.  In programs like these, students gain:

  • self-confidence;
  • leadership ability;
  • the ability to work in a team;
  • public speaking;
  • a strong sense of achievement;
  • lifelong enthusiasm for learning;
  • business, marketing, organization, and time management skills;
  • real analytical problem-solving experience;
  • achievement of Common Core Standards; and
  • an appreciation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields; and

WHEREAS, programs such as robotics should be the backbone of a 21st century education.  In Dr. Hite’s words, “[T]his (the RoboLancers’ robotics) program is the ‘perfect’ lesson plan because it engages children in the types of things that will face them within a global economy.”  In President Barack Obama’s words, “[W]e need to encourage our kids and invest in their education. We need to give them the chance to become the next generation of scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs.”

NOW, THEREFORE, the RoboLancers of Central High School hereby announce their support for a four-point formula, which is set out below, that is absolutely a requirement for the sustainability of their program, programs like theirs, and, more importantly, quality education in the City of Philadelphia.  The following immediate steps must be taken in the contract negotiation process with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers:

1.  The extension of the school day must occur only if complete freedom is given to teachers and students to participate in extracurricular activities during that extended time;

2.  STEM robotics funding must be reinstated by the SDP, including support for competitions, training for students and coaches, late night transpasses for students similar to that which is provided to members of sports teams, and weekend building access;

3.  The incorporation of the benefits of project-based learning activities in any new teacher evaluation system, especially where it affects student achievement that is not measurable on a standardized exam; and

4.  The accommodation and compensation for robotics coaches, including free use of preparation periods and extracurricular pay commensurate with athletics’ coaches.

FURTHERMORE, the following serious issues with far-reaching significance must be addressed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in order to provide the power and resources to the SDP necessary to revitalize public education in the City of Philadelphia:

1.  Establish an elected Board of Education in Philadelphia and repeal Act 46 – Philadelphia is the only municipality in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which does not have a city-controlled Board of Education.  State government has failed to improve Philadelphia public schools since Act 46 was passed in 1998, when control of the district was transferred to the Commonwealth in the form of the School Reform Commission and collective bargaining was threatened.  The RoboLancers support State Representative Mark Cohen’s proposal to establish an elected Board of Education in Philadelphia.

2.  Establish Fair Funding Legislation – There is extreme inequity in the per-pupil funding in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Many suburbs surrounding Philadelphia spend between 150% and 200% more per pupil than SDP schools.  It is the job of the state government to assure equitable funding throughout the state to prevent separate and unequal education.  The RoboLancers support the efforts of Mayor Michael Nutter and State Representative Jim Roebuck in this regard.

3.  Other Reforms – In addition to the foregoing specific remedies, the RoboLancers suggest our government leaders focus on a variety of additional measures, which would translate into providing additional funding for the SDP:

        a.      Land Value Tax Reform – Land Value Tax Reform is a developing movement in the country that has caused economic growth in many municipalities, including Pittsburgh, Altoona, and Harrisburg.  Land Value Tax Reform would inspire development of vacant land, shift the tax burden from the middle class, and provide additional resources for education.  Philadelphia must take control of its finances in order to alleviate dependence on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The RoboLancers support the Center for the Study of Economics and their proposal for Land Value Tax Reform.

        b.      Tax Gas and Oil Production – Except for an “impact fee” which Governor Corbett promises is not a real tax, Pennsylvania, the only state with huge deposits of oil and gas, does not impose a tax on gas and oil production.  Therefore, according to a January 2013 PEW report, Pennsylvania is bringing in far less revenue from drilling than its rivals.  Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, the Democratic frontrunner in the 2014 gubernatorial race, wants to tax natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale at 5%, using the money to invest in education and transportation infrastructure.  The RoboLancers support a tax on natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale, using the revenue to invest in education.

c.      Moratorium on Charter School Expansion – In April 2013, Dr. Hite stated:  “It would be irresponsible for the District to endorse charter expansion while asking our principals to do the impossible with school budgets.”  Despite a 2010 RAND study and a 2009 CREDO study showing charter schools perform no better on average than traditional public schools and cost taxpayers the same amount per pupil, charter funding in Philadelphia for 2014 will top $700 million and accounts for about 30 percent of the SDP’s operating budget.  Charter schools have expanded well beyond their original chartered populations, pulling resources from the SDP as they do.  The RoboLancers support a moratorium on charter school expansion.

Your support is requested for the RoboLancers’ platform because the alternative is unimaginable both for the present and future students of Philadelphia and indeed all of its citizens.  By affixing your signature below you are showing your support of public education, for which the RoboLancers are very grateful.

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The RoboLancers

Who We Are

The RoboLancers are a student-operated, adult-mentored robotics program based out of Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The program was founded in 1999 as FIRST Robotics Team #321 and included five students from the school. Since then, the program has evolved into a multi-faceted organization of more than 60 students and 9 adult mentors that – with a $20,000 per year budget – competes in two to three competitions, hosts various STEM training and outreach programs around the city, and has become a shining example of what students in a struggling urban setting can do if given the opportunity.  The RoboLancers received three Engineering Inspiration awards last year for their work inspiring students to enter STEM fields.  They also traveled to the FIRST World Championships for the first time in 2013.

What We Do

The RoboLancers provide students with a complete immersion in STEM problem solving.  Students are given hands-on engineering experience as they work in teams to solve electrical, mechanical, and programming problems. Students work with solid modeling programs, programming languages, web design software, and control systems. The students themselves then use this gained knowledge to inspire other students in Philadelphia to become interested in STEM fields through various school and community events; including hosting the Philly Robotics Expo, mentoring at FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and FIRST Lego League (FLL) events, building robots for theater groups, participating in a documentary about high school robotics teams, and demonstrating their robots at district schools and STEM awareness events.

Our Goals

A primary goal of the RoboLancers is to work with the students in Central High School, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), and the greater Philadelphia area to inspire their involvement in STEM and computer science fields.  The program is unique in that it empowers those disadvantaged and underrepresented populations on a small scale in order that they themselves may engage those populations on a larger scale.  Other program goals include the following:

  • To inspire every individual that builds with, learns from, cheers for, or hears about the team to have confidence in themselves and in their future
  • To spark students’ interest in STEM and computer science within the School District and the City of Philadelphia, and ultimately produce young adults who contribute to the community, country, and world in STEM fields
  • To prepare students for enrollment in higher education with an interest toward obtaining engineering, computer science, and other STEM related degrees
  • To foster a positive self-image, leadership skills, teamwork and moral behavior among Philadelphia students
  • To transform the image of Philadelphia to one which is a hub for advanced technology through various partnerships with local businesses and universities



Open Letter to Philadelphia

Dear Philadelphia,

The RoboLancers need your help.

There are many stories floating around about how the School District budget problems are going to affect the schools, the students, the community, and the teachers.  But there are personal stories in there as well.  Stories about good teachers losing their jobs, about students being pushed from a school they love during their senior year, about seniors scared about the college admission process without guidance counselors, about teachers getting pushed into situations they are not best qualified for.  Then there is our story.

This story is about how a robotics team of 80 students that has won multiple awards for their outreach, teaching Philadelphia students about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), that has traveled to international competitions, that raised over $30,000 in one week for a championship in St. Louis, that runs the popular Philly Robotics Expo during Philly Tech Week, and that sends 90% of its seniors on to engineering undergraduate programs, may not exist this year.

The reason this team may not exist is directly due to the ineffectiveness of the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission and Governor Corbett.  That ineffectiveness has led to the following actions and proposals that is forcing me to consider shutting down our team:

  • I am being asked to take a 13% pay cut.
  • All funding for robotics programs including teachers’ salaries have been cut.
  • The district is seeking the power to move teachers from school to school.
  • I am being asked to work a longer work day.
  • We have been left with 1 nurse for 2500 students.
  • All guidance counselors have been laid off, eliminating opportunities for scholarships and making the college application process virtually impossible for my students.
  • I am being asked to switch from Physics to Math, take an additional class, and teach at least three different kinds of classes, all in violation of the current contract and all due to layoffs and budget constraints.
  • I am being asked to sacrifice my preparation periods for school operations.
  • Schools may not open on Sept. 9th.
  • Partial or full union strikes are looming.

As coach of the RoboLancers, I work very, very hard.  From January through April, I work 60-70 hours a week at school and then countless hours at home prepping for class, grading papers, and fundraising.  During the rest of the year, I routinely work 45-60 hours at school.  Yet, the District wishes to mandate I have a longer work day, take a pay cut, and work through my preparation periods.

I work with my team to raise $20,000 every year to pay for our expenses because the School District gives us absolutely no support.

I also work closely with Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania to help inspire students to go into STEM fields.  I go through constant professional development to improve my skills in the classroom and to offer as much as I possibly can to my students.  Yet, I am disrespected repeatedly by the Mayor and the Governor.

I was not paid for my work with the robotics team last year, just as many club coaches are not paid across the city.  I do this work because I care about my city and the kids in it.  Yet, Mayor Nutter and Governor Corbett say that I’m not sacrificing enough.

Now, with the decisions the School District, the School Reform Commission, and Governor Corbett have made, doing the work that I do with my students and with the City of Philadelphia may be impossible.

The School Reform Commission has failed this city and its School District.  Ten years of failed policies and decisions have led us to this point, a tipping point, and now this great city has to decide.

What kind of school system do you want?  Do you want a school system that supports programs like the RoboLancers and experienced teachers who work as hard as I do?  Or do you want to undercut our professionals and our kids by moving to a system that underpays inexperienced teachers and sees test results as the ultimate goal?

Philadelphia must take back control of its schools from the state.  Pennsylvania is benefitting from the move to a charter system, but Philadelphia is not.  Take a look at what is happening in Chicago.  That is our future if we don’t put our foot down and say enough is enough.

Please Philadelphia, I want to teach your kids.  I want my robotics program to continue thriving.  I want my students to keep getting jobs as freshmen in robotics labs at Drexel.  I want to help make this a better city to live in.  But I need your help.  Contact the Mayor, your council person, the Governor, and tell them to support your students, your schools, and your teachers.  Tell them to stop holding our children”s future ransom, to give them every opportunity they deserve.  Tell them to give control of the School District back to the city.

Thank you,
Daniel Ueda, BSME, MST
Physics Teacher and FIRST Robotics Coach
Geek of the Year nominee – 2013, Lindback Award Winner – 2013, Delaware Valley Engineers Week Science Teacher of the Year -2013
Central High School