Leaders in Philadelphia’s Mantua section worked diligently to secure interest from federal authorities to award millions of dollars for revitalization in their neighborhood – with the McMichael elementary school (K-8) on Fairmount Avenue near 35th Street being integral to those improvement plans and receiving that essential federal funding.
Then a bomb dropped last December, sending shock waves threatening to blow apart the federal funding expected for revitalization in long depressed Mantua.
Philadelphia School District officials announced the closure of McMichael and 36 other schools as a cost-cutting move to shed schools with high numbers of empty seats due to low enrollments.
When City Council’s Committee on Education held hearings on the District’s controversial closure scheme in mid-February, during her opening remarks questioning closure policies, Committee Chair Jannie Blackwell raised the issue of why the district would jeopardize revitalization in Mantua by closing McMichael.
Days after that contentious Council hearing, Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite released a revised closure list reducing the number of targeted schools from 37 to 29 — with McMichael among the schools removed from the original list.
The School Reform Commission has scheduled March 7 for a vote to finalize closings.
Even with Hite’s revised list containing fewer closures, Philadelphia school officials plan the largest number of school closings ever in this city’s history.
The closings will affect 14,000 students under Hite’s plan, that figure decreased from 17,000 students under the original plan developed from a report the School Reform Commission received last year from the Boston Consulting Group, a entity known for mass school closings.
Assessments of the school closures (Hite’s and the original plan) note the disturbing fact of disproportionate impact in predominately poor communities, with 88 percent of the students impacted by closures being Black in a district where Blacks comprise 55 percent of the students.
Critics of current closure plans cite the fact that schools in Philadelphia’s predominately white Northeast are basically spared from closures — despite some schools in that area having a comparable number of empty seats – a criteria officials said they used for selecting closures in other sections of Philadelphia.
With School District and SRC officials citing deficiencies in math proficiency as one performance criteria used to select schools for closing, critics of the closure scheme — from community activists to veteran educators to city officials — argue the arithmetic officials used for the closures just doesn’t add up.
“There’s no evidence of significant savings and no evidence of significant gains in academic achievement,” Parents United for Public Education co-founder Helen Gym said.
“Closures could be a method for progress, but usually turn into disinvestment and a spiral of decline,” Gym said. “There’s a stubborn unwillingness to learn from mistakes.”
Hite testified during that council hearing that closures would immediately save the cash strapped public school system $28 million in operating costs.
But Hite quickly noted that savings from closures would not purchase more teachers or technology, despite school officials declaring their intent in closures is improving the system’s educational quality.
“Closings are initially to save money, and we will reinvest in future years,” Hite told Council. “We have to address finances to be able to improve education.”
That $28 million represents just one percent of the School District’s total budget.
Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz, the city’s fiscal watchdog, issued a report on the day of that council hearing detailing how the district’s closure plan “overstates” by millions of dollars the savings anticipated in operating costs and revenues from the sale of closed schools.
Butkovitz’s report questioned the district’s “misleading and…tenuous assumptions.”
While the school district presented its projected cost savings and sale revenue months ago, it hasn’t released figures on how much closures will cost to implement for items like moving desks, renovations of the buildings receiving new students, and transporting more students for farther distances.
Such transition costs in Washington, D.C., which closed 23 schools in 2008, actually totaled more than four times the $10 million D.C. school officials originally set for implementation costs.
The Philadelphia School District “is currently working on a cost estimate” for the closures, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.
Costs the school district also hasn’t presented include costs to maintain schools shuttered by closure.
That Butkovitz report warned that closed schools will remain vacant for years, becoming “magnets” for drugs, crime and fires. School District and SRC officials sell the closures as vital for helping students improve academically by moving them from poor performing to higher achieving schools.
However, studies by Research for Action in Philadelphia found little differences in achievement levels between closing and receiving schools in two-thirds of the “proposed transfers.”
That Butkovitz report reached findings similar to Research in Action, deconstructing district assertions about academic improvements embedded in their closure scheme.
The closing, then non-closing of the McMichael School illustrates what critics call fuzzy logic underlying the closure scheme.
Officials apparently dismissed the planned revitalization funding when initially listing McMichael for closing, yet said the “new development” (revitalization) that will increase enrollment in the “near future” is a reason for removing McMichael from the closing list.
Additionally, officials said that school’s “strong relationships” with organizations like Drexel University and PECO would provide “significant resources” to enhance educational enrichment at McMichael…relationships that existed before the original closure announcement.
The moving of students to new schools for academic improvement, assertions advanced by the district, are not embraced by some students.
“School closings don’t address quality education. Changing schools is not changing students’ mindsets,” 17-year-old Germantown resident Antonio Dill-Word said.
Some parents commend Dr. Hite for revising school closings in reaction to community concerns voiced during a series of public meetings, but remain skeptical about the district and the SRC, particularly over the lack of specific long-term plans for elevating academic achievement citywide.
Gerald Wright, an engaged parent with two children in city schools, said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos commends parents for participation in the public meetings but still backs mass closings, a stance Wright calls “cold blooded.”
Wright said the School District needs more transparency.
“Closing schools is one thing. But if closing, what is the transition plan? No business would consolidate a factory without a clear plan. The dilemma schools will face is dealing with students with more developmental needs, but without more resources.”
Interestingly, both closure critics and proponents agree that the district must shed itself of the costs from underutilized schools. Critics accept that closures are necessary but question the manner and methods of the current closure scheme.
Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, is among many citywide who support a one-year moratorium on school closings to put a more efficient procedure in place.
In January, city council approved by a vote of 14-2 a non-binding resolution calling for a moratorium – a requested delay so far not accepted by the district or the SRC.
Rev. Waller said a moratorium will enable divergent voices to come together, review materials and devise a “fair and equitable model” for right-sizing the school system.
“I join people who believe that the people in power can find the money for a moratorium. A problem with the closings is there is no vision of what will happen when closings are complete?” Waller said.
Waller said the District’s push to shed $28 million is to create a savings to enable the district to borrow $250 million.
“They chose to find the money for borrowing in school closings,” Rev Waller said.
“It is time for the state to give money back to Philadelphia schools and give control of schools back to the city.” (The SRC is a state created/controlled oversight entity.)
Enon Church has won praise for conducting its own comprehensive study of Philadelphia’s school closing crisis. Waller said one major finding of that study is “the assumptions informing the closings are not accurate.”
Pittsburgh engaged in mass school closings (22 schools) in 2008. with many in that city contending those closures created chaos, education and community wise. Plus, Pittsburgh’s school system remains in financial crisis – perhaps going broke by 2015.
“Pittsburgh is not a success. I can’t say anything is better. We told them about problems, but no one wanted to listen to us,” Pittsburgh School Board member Mark Brentley Sr. said.
“This has been a money grab for consultants and other private entities. Things in Pittsburgh are politics and race.”
Mass school closings are occurring nationwide disproportionately impacting cities with large non-white school populations. Accompanying these closures are pushes to privatize public schools, funneling funding to large corporations.
Charter schools have expanded rapidly in Philadelphia during the past decade, causing an additional strain on the school district’s budget. The district’s five year finance plan projects a $588 million cost for charter schools, district spokesmen state.
Charter school operator Dr. Walter Palmer is a long-time advocate of community control of schools and opposes the campaign for large corporations to run schools, calling it a “hostile take-over” of urban education.
“Let fired up parents and teachers take control of these closed buildings. It’s easy to raise hell, but the issue is finding solutions and raising money,” Palmer said.
“Things will never, ever go back to the way it was.”