District officials had lots of answers for a boisterous auditorium-full of George W. Childs School parents Wednesday evening as they tried to explain why they want to relocate the entire 605-student school into nearby Barratt Middle School next fall.
But parents kept repeating one question that officials couldn't or didn't answer: "Why weren't we included in the decision-making process from the beginning?"
While District staff invited questions and comments on the plan they presented, they did not suggest that there were any other options.
Their plan is to close the 116-year-old Childs building at 17th and Tasker on June 30. They emphasized that renovations of the Barratt building at 16th and Wharton are already underway, where next year the remaining population of 90 Barratt eighth-graders would be housed upstairs from the pre-K-to-8 Childs population.
In 2011, Childs would have the Barratt building to itself.
Barratt, where the District will hold an informational meeting on Thursday night, is slated to disappear, itself the victim of another decision made downtown years ago without community input. Its feeder schools, including Childs, were coverted to K-8, leaving Barratt without any entering students to sustain it. In the words of the School District's handout explaining the relocation, "After June 2011, the enrollment at Barratt will be zero."
Officials said the current Childs building is "not safe." Portions of the original structure have wooden walls, floors, and stairs. A District spokesperson said the school, built in the 19th century, "is going to cost way too much money to bring it up to repair."
In fact, according to Patrick Henwood, who heads the District's capital programs, it would cost $33 million to upgrade.
Judy Walston, mother of a Childs eighth grader, is one of the parents organizing opposition to the move. She said the District promised meetings with the community last time the idea of closing Childs came up two years ago. But the first she heard about the new plans was last Thursday.
Walston questioned why this decision to combine the two schools would be made at the end of the year, when it is late to pursue any transfer options.
Like others at Wednesday's meeting, Walston is concerned that Barratt children now bully the younger students at Childs but next year will share a lunchroom, library, and gym. That's just the start of a litany of problems she cited.
She wasn't buying District claims that the Barratt building is superior - she noted that students at Childs gather in a protected school yard, have a brand new mural, and don't have to go up a long flight of stairs to enter their building.
She suggested that the District must be anxious to sell the Childs property to developers. She's not sure why any of the facilities needs are urgent at Childs, except for needing a new roof. Mainly, she doesn't want to see the Childs program disrupted.
"The school is going very well and is very sucessful," she said. The school has impressive test scores and made AYP in 2009.
Interim Regional Superintendent Ralph Burnley had a response to the concerns about violence wrought by Barratt students - that it is a community problem that needs to be dealt with head-on whether or not the schools share a space. "Let's join together so we can have the children co-exist," he said.
The School Reform Commission plans a hearing on Childs and Barratt on May 26.
With a facilities master plan coming next fall, more school closings are on the horizon. State law does require 90 days notice and a hearing of the District's governing board before a school can be closed.
The Notebook is awaiting an explanation from the District on another school closing in South Philadelphia that took place in 2007, but apparently without the requisite closing process.
The W.S. Peirce School property was put up for sale by a vote of the SRC this month, but District officials have not responded to Notebook questions about whether that action is legal.
Childs is noteworthy for another reason. It is one of about a dozen historically Black elementary schools in Philadelphia, from an era in which the Board of Education segregated all African American teachers and principals in schools that contained only African American students. No African American teachers taught in a junior high or high school in Philadelphia until about 1940, and then only a trickle until the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 mandated an end to deliberately segregated schools.