The first lesson about school closings is simple: People get mad.
More than three years after the Ada Lewis Middle School closed its doors, Arenda Bethel still is impassioned about it.
"We proved that some of the information that [the District] gave was not true," said Bethel, a Germantown resident who spearheaded the campaign to keep her son's school open.
"If you haven't really experienced [a closure], and seen how it changes the makeup of your community, you don't understand."
It was early 2007 when District officials first proposed the Ada Lewis closure, based on low enrollment and an estimated $38 million repair bill. Bethel believed fervently that the school was worth saving. She and her supporters became a fixture at School Reform Commission meetings, contesting everything from the District's public notification process – far too cursory, they said – to its high repair estimates.
"We had two engineers there for three and a half hours," recalled Lewis Harris, a community activist who organized a team of contractors to inspect the school. "From the roof to the floors, everywhere."
But District officials stood by their estimates and argued that another neighborhood school had room for Ada Lewis students. In June 2007, the SRC voted unanimously for closure.
To this day, Bethel and her supporters think they never had a chance.
"We believe that arrangements were already made to close the building, and nothing parents had to say was taken seriously," said Venard Johnson, a longtime education activist.
Ada Lewis now sits empty. District officials say they have no plans for it yet. Bethel said she calls regularly to complain about weeds, trash, and vagrants.
And when she considers the District's new facilities master plan, Bethel fears that other parents will soon share her experience.
"They're still doing the same thing," Bethel said. "They're trying to make it look like they're including us, but they really aren't."
District: Nothing's predetermined
District officials say fears like Bethel's are understandable, but unfounded. They say there is no secret list of schools slated for closure.
"Everybody always thinks we have a list," said Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd. "I don't have a list."
They won't even say that closings are guaranteed, despite an estimated 70,000 surplus seats. "I don't know if [closures are] inevitable, but it's possible," said Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery. "You're going to have ranges of things to do: closure, consolidation, renovation."
But Floyd and Nunery also say that the Ada Lewis experience shows that the District must do a better job of communicating with parents and making its case for changes.
"One of the things we did learn when we did our homework is, if you're going to close something, or change what's there, you have to offer something better," said Nunery. "We keep that right in front of us."
Tom Brady, who served as Philadelphia's interim superintendent when Ada Lewis was closed, says that's the right place to start.
"As soon as you decide to close a school, it becomes the best school in the world," said Brady, who has been part of closures in Virginia, Washington D.C., and Providence, R.I., where he is now superintendent. "Parents, graduates, and grandparents will rally. No matter what estimates you come up with, there will be experts who will come in and refute you. That's part of the deal.
"So what we learned from six months of meetings every night [in D.C.] is, you have to create a better scenario for kids," said Brady. "You have to say, 'We're going to close School A, and School B will have the following academic improvements – more teachers, more art, more PE.' People aren't going to throw roses, but reasonable parents, if you explain in graphic terms how the improvement's going to benefit them, they'll come around."
Brady says there was no predetermined fate for Ada Lewis, and that District officials gave an honest and accurate accounting of the school's condition. "It wasn't a done deal," he said. "Like all closures, it was very controversial, but I believe there were enough facts on the table."
But that, Brady says, highlights another important lesson: When it comes to a community asset like a school, facts alone are not enough. He cites an experience in Fairfax County, Va., early in his career. "I had all the facts, I had all the engineers giving me reports – and I didn't have a clue of the political landscape," Brady said. "I got killed. They hired engineers to prove that my facts were wrong.