After a year of urgency from the District about the need to shed tens of thousands of excess seats, it was surprising that the facilities master plan unveiled in November called for only nine school closings. Some local officials and School Reform Commission members responded that the plan is not aggressive enough. One critique we heard is that it's better to rip off a Band-Aid than slowly peel it off.
But we suggest laying the Band-Aid analogy to rest and cooling the rhetoric about the need to be aggressive. There's a lot more to closing schools than withstanding momentary pain.
Each closing disrupts the educational trajectory of hundreds of students. Students and staff need well-designed transition plans, and surrounding schools need to be fully prepared for an influx of those who are displaced. We question whether the District has the staff capacity to manage this.
To avoid chaos, confusion, and an exodus from the School District, every closing demands careful, sustained attention. Even before recent budget cuts wiped out half the jobs in the central office, the District struggled to effectively manage the occasional single school closing. Handling as many as nine at once will be daunting. Acting Superintendent Nunery appeared to realize this when he scaled back the plan.
There's a deeper reason for the District to go slow on closings. In terms of the public's role, the process so far has been flawed. Last winter, through two rounds of community meetings, the District declined to release any of the data being used to assess specific buildings. Right up to the November announcement, officials refused to identify any schools that might be affected.
All nine of the closing recommendations were included in a March preliminary report obtained by the Notebook. Yet District officials dismissed any mention of specific schools as premature speculation. These past months could have been used to be honest with potentially affected communities and seek their input.
Decisions are to be based on data that schools until now have had no opportunity to question. Some schools now say that their capacity numbers have been overstated and there are far fewer empty seats than claimed. There is legitimate public skepticism about why the District's last consultant said there were 45,000 empty seats districtwide and the current consultant says 70,000. And there is bewilderment about why any high-performing schools, like E.M. Stanton, would be on the closing list.
No doubt there are run-down, half-empty, low-performing schools in Philadelphia that ought to be closed. But now it's time, as the School Reform Commission has said, to hear community concerns and suggestions about the plans on the table. Let's hope that the community dialogue over the next few months can incorporate the wisdom of those who until now have not been given the chance to talk about the future of their schools.