Mass School Closings in Philadelphia: District to Close 23 Schools

Mass School Closings in Philadelphia: District to Close 23 Schools

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By Damon C. Williams for the Philadelphia Tribune

Late Thursday evening, the School Reform Commission – after hearing from more than 30 stakeholders and enduring several taunts from the assembly – has decided to close 23 of the targeted schools, while allowing four to remain open. Whittier Elementary School, , Pratt Elementary School, Ferguson Elementary School, Fairhill Elementary School, LP Hill Elementary School, Fulton Elementary School, Kinsey Elementary School, Smith Elementary School, George Washington Elementary School, Abigail Vare Elementary School, Wilson Elementary School, Leidy Elementary School, Pepper Middle School, Sheridan West Academy, Vaux Promise Academy, Carroll High School, Douglas High School, Germantown High School, University City High School, Bok Technical High School, Lamberton High School, and Shaw Middle School are closing at the end of the school year. TM Peirce Elementary School, Taylor Elementary School, Roosevelt Middle School, and Robeson High School were spared.

The SRC took the measure after supporters of public education staged a massive rally at school district headquarters, and more than a dozen people were arrested on disorderly conduct charges, hours before a scheduled vote on closing more than 10 percent of the district’s schools.

The SRC contends the cash-strapped system can’t afford to keep open the  buildings, many of which are under-enrolled and in poor condition. But opponents say the move will irreparably damage dozens of neighborhoods and further fuel a student exodus from district schools to charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate independently.

“The charter schools can’t accept all the kids who live in the neighborhoods,” said Ed Richardson, a biology teacher at Northeast High School, which is not on the closure list. “You cannot educate more efficiently and more effectively than in a public school.”

Hundreds packed the School Reform Commission meeting room and an overflow space immediately after the rally, which required Broad Street in front of the building to be closed as hundreds chanted “Children First” and “Fix Our Schools Don’t Close Them.” The commission will vote after hearing from members of the public.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Wiengarten was among a group of activists arrested inside the meeting room, as they formed a human barricade to prevent SRC members from entering. Weingarten and her party were handcuffed and arrested without incident.

A number of Philadelphia City Council members also either testified or attended the meeting, with Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. pleading with the SRC to work with elected officials and grant a moratorium on the school closure decision.

State Representative W. Curtis Thomas, long a critic of the SRC’s Facilities Master Plan and of Hite’s “Action Plan v. 1.0,” said Philadelphia “will either be empowered or shackled as a result of your decision this evening.”
“The process by which the school district reached its decision on school closings was flawed and therefore, must be rejected,” Thomas said in his address before the SRC. “Yes, there is an issue of finances. However, money should never become the reason for denying any student access to a quality education.  This was the basis for Brown vs. the Board of Education that requires states and municipalities to provide equal education.  In 1971, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission agreed and conducted an investigation into the School District of Philadelphia that found that the district was illegally segregated and denying minority students their right to equal educational opportunity.   After decades of argument, the Commonwealth Court settled the case in 2009.

“However, in my humble opinion, a systematic pattern of de facto segregation and discrimination still exists within the School District of Philadelphia,” said Thomas.

The SRC insists the situation is dire. The commission had to borrow $300 million to make ends meet this year, and projections show the district will accumulate a nearly $1.4 billion deficit over five years without a radical overhaul that includes major closures and other austerity measures, including privatization of some services, concessions from its unions and hiring freezes.

According to the SRC, the district, which has seen a 23 percent enrollment drop over the past decade, would save about $24.5 million annually through the downsizing. Buildings would then be operating at about 78 percent of their capacity, up from 67 percent.

But community members are also concerned by the potential for blight, longer walks for younger students — sometimes through dangerous areas — and combining students from rival areas in the same school.

Antione Little said if his neighborhood school closed, his daughter faces an additional 15- to 20-minute walk to her new school.

“It’s more of a safety factor than anything,” he said.

Still, officials say the consolidations — which would affect about 14,000 students — have been carefully studied for months. They also contend they’ve responded to community feedback by revising the closure list from 37 buildings to 29. Two of the 29 schools were new additions to the list; commissioners will vote on those closings later.

“The amended recommendations address the concerns from many parents, students and residents,” Superintendent William Hite said in a statement. “I hope that we can move forward in minimizing disruption for our students and providing better options for families.”

The closures would take effect after classes end in June. An unspecified number of layoffs are expected, including principals, building engineers and maintenance workers, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

No teacher layoffs are anticipated because the overall student population of 149,000 should remain the same, Gallard said.

Critics have also questioned whether closures simply create a new set of problems. A recent study indicates that urban districts often have trouble unloading shuttered schools because of poor real estate markets, undesirable locations and bad building conditions, among other reasons.

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