by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
View an interactive map of the District's facilities recommendations.
[UPDATED Thursday a.m.] After months of speculation that dozens of schools across the city could be shut down, District officials have recommended to the School Reform Commission that just nine schools be closed by 2014.
The recommendations come as part of a package of facilities changes that District officials say will reduce their excess capacity by 14,000 seats – a far cry from the target of 40,000 seats they had earlier set.
“The path we’re taking, we think fits the times that we’re in,” said Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery.
But the District’s cautious approach met some immediate questions, including from some members of the SRC.
Asked if the plan goes far enough, Interim SRC Chairman Wendell Pritchett said simply, “We need to do more.”
For months, officials have argued that the District needs to dramatically “rightsize” its aging physical plant in response to dramatic declines in student enrollment , changing demographic realities, and ongoing fiscal challenges. Over the past 10 years, the District has lost over 50,000 students, leaving the system’s facilities operating at only about 68 percent of its capacity.
Wednesday’s recommendations will only take the District to about 71 percent capacity – well short of the 85 percent target adopted by the SRC last spring. But officials, calling this “phase four” of a facilities master planning process that started over a year ago, made clear that there could be more to come.
Nunery and District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd presented the District’s current recommendations at a special meeting of the School Reform Commission Wednesday evening. Their plan includes over 30 proposed actions, including 17 grade reconfigurations and the relocation of another school.
Inevitably, though, most of the attention was on the proposed closures.
Five of the schools that could be shuttered are elementary schools, two are middle schools, and two are high schools. All but one, Philadelphia High School for Business, are neighborhood schools serving their surrounding catchment areas. Eight of the nine closings would take place next fall.
Parents, students, and supporters at E.M. Stanton Elementary in South Philadelphia were out in force Wednesday to voice their displeasure at the possibility of being shut down.
“I'm outraged,” said Angela Anderson, the parent of two students at E.M. Stanton. “I got physically sick to my stomach when I heard it.”
The new-look SRC, still short two members, took pains to emphasize that no final decisions have yet been made about specific schools and that they welcomed public input on the plan.
“These are recommendations,” said recent mayoral appointee Lorene Cary. “This is not a show trial where everything is already done and everybody has to shut up.”
On November 17, the District will host the first of 17 community meetings seeking input on its recommendations.
Under state law, the SRC must also hold a public hearing on the recommendations and then allow for 90 days before it can take a formal vote to close schools. Officials said the earliest a vote could take place without a special meeting being called is March 22, 2012.
The nine schools listed for potential closure are spread throughout the city in a demographically diverse collection of neighborhoods, leaving no single community, ethnic group, or economic class bearing the brunt of the plan’s pain.
In making their recommendations, District officials said they considered a wide variety of factors ranging from the age of a school’s building to the quality of its educational program.
Creating more traditional middle schools and reducing the number of grade configurations across the District were key factors in the District’s decisions, said Floyd.
“One of the goals of this plan is to really try to get back to something that’s more manageable and predictable” for parents, she said.
All but one of the grade configuration changes involve changing just one grade, in most cases shifting K-6 schools to K-5.
Shaw and Tilden middle schools will be taking on more students, with each starting a grade earlier, while E.W. Rhodes is losing its high school grades and becoming strictly a middle school.
But two existing middle schools are targeted for closing – Pepper in Southwest Philadelphia and Sheridan West in Feltonville.
Many of the proposals are interrelated. In North Central Philadelphia, for example, FitzSimons High would be phased out over a two-year period, leaving E.W. Rhodes as the community’s neighborhood middle school and nearby Strawberry Mansion as its neighborhood high school.
In Roxborough, the educational program at Levering Elementary would be closed down, with parents given four options for where to send their children. The building at Levering would remain open, however, with another school that is currently in a leased facility in Mt. Airy, AMY Northwest, moving in.
“It’s going to be a little bit messy to get there, but we’re trying to have it be more streamlined,” said the Floyd.
Officials provided no firm estimates of the total budgetary impact of their plan, but said the cash-strapped District might save between $500,000 and $1 million per closure, per year – before the expenses of relocating students and staff and maintaining the shuttered facilities are factored in.
Further budget relief could come from the sale of surplus properties.
The District already was trying to sell off eight of its closed buildings. Under the plan announced Wednesday, some additional properties will also be listed, including two recently replaced schools – the West Philadelphia High building at 47th and Walnut Streets, and Willard Elementary in Kensington.
Acting Superintendent Nunery stressed that the facilities plan will not bring in “huge windfalls of cash,” however.
Current estimates are that the District can net $5 million from property sales this year.
Reaction came almost immediately after the recommendations were announced.
For supporters of schools that were spared, there was relief.
“I never know what to expect, honestly,” said Nijmie Dzurinko, the director of the Philadelphia Student Union, whose chapter at Furness High in South Philadelphia has been lobbying to keep their school intact.
Those not attached to specific schools tended to focus on the District’s apparent decision to take a step-by-step approach to “rightsizing” rather than take all its lumps at once.
“They said they had a 70,000-seat problem. They’re dealing with a relatively small piece of it, which means they’ll have to deal with more of it later,” said Larry Eichel, the project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which recently released a study looking at school closings in six cities across the country.
Based on those cities’ experiences, Eichel said there is “no right or wrong” way to go about school closings.
Talking with reporters after the meeting, Nunery stressed the constraints the District is working under as one reason for the scaled-back recommendations.
“Everybody’s right to say, ‘Do more,’" he said. “It’s a matter of how much you can plan for in a budget-constrained system like ours.”
Political critics who expected a major overhaul were disappointed.
"We've been waiting three years for this plan, and they spent a lot of time on it, and what's proposed isn't going to move the needle at all," said at-large City Councilman Bill Green. "The changes they're proposing in the next two years are marginal, given the big picture."
But one potential benefit of targeting a relatively small number of schools is that the District has likely defused political confrontations with some district Council members.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents West Philadelphia, spent the summer anticipating large numbers of closings in her district after the Notebook published a leaked draft of the plan. Now she only has to deal with one: Drew Elementary.
"The less the better," she said.
More to come?
While he was not specific about a timeline, Nunery said more recommendations, including more potential closings, could be coming soon.
“This plan is not one and done,” he said.
Any future changes would likely center around high schools and career and technical education, both of which went largely unaddressed in Wednesday’s recommendations.
“We’ve got work to do,” said Nunery.
That seemed to be a common sentiment among the diverse constituencies impacted by Wednesday’s announcement.
At E.M. Stanton, supporters of the school said they have only just begun their mobilization to reverse the District’s recommendation.
“We’ll be back,” said Susan Kettell, a retired Stanton arts teacher who still coordinates artists-in-residency program at the school.
And the SRC has some major procedural decisions to make in the coming weeks, including whether they will vote on the closing recommendations as a package or individually.
Interim Chair Pritchett said he hopes that the board can be fully constituted before such matters are decided. At the moment, however, confirmation hearings for recent gubernatorial nominees Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun, are stalled in the Pennsylvania Senate.
“It really is a frustration that we don’t have the full complement yet,” said Pritchett, who is presiding over the commission until Ramos is confirmed.
The current commissioners say they are committed to attending as many of the upcoming public hearing as possible, and they vowed to take community input seriously.
But Pritchett was realistic about the challenges ahead.
“I do think it is inevitable that there will be people who are upset and who will not be mollified by an interaction we have with them or any decision in the end,” he said. “That’s reality.”
Listen to Benjamin Herold's radio report for WHYY.
Additional reporting by Patrick Kerkstra for PlanPhilly and Notebook editorial intern Avi Wolfman-Arent.
Harrison Elementary (K-8) Students to be re-assigned to Dunbar Promise Academy, Ludlow Elementary, or Spring Garden Elementary.
Sheppard Elementary (K-4) Students to be re-assigned to Julia de Burgos Elementary or Hunter Elementary.
FitzSimons High School (7-12) Part of a larger package of changes involving E.W. Rhodes and Strawberry Mansion High Schools, to be phased in over two years.
Sheridan West Academy (6-8) Phased out over two years, with all current students remaining until the school closes.
- E.M. Stanton Elementary (K-8) Students to be reassigned to Arthur Elementary or Childs Elementary.
- Philadelphia High School For Business (9-12) Phased out over three years, with all current students remaining until the school closes.
- Levering Elementary (K-8) Students to be reassigned to Dobson Elementary, Cook-Wissahickon Elementary, Mifflin Elementary, or AMY Northwest Middle School.
- Drew Elementary (K-8) Students to be reassigned to Powel Elementary, MYA-Middle Years Alternative, Locke Elementary, or Martha Washington Elementary.
Proposed closing for the 2013-14 school year:
- Pepper Middle School (5-8) Phased out over three years.