“We have made no decisions; there are no deals.”
With that statement, School Reform Commissioner Wendell Pritchett made clear what Saturday’s facilities master plan meeting was about: dialogue. It was evident in the tone of the meeting and the ease with which District leadership and the public spoke to each other that listening is indeed taking place.
Saturday marked the fourth of 17 meetings between the District and the public. It was the first of four in the South-Central Planning Region, where two school closures are proposed – E.M Stanton Elementary and the Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology. Parents, students, and community members representing both schools came out for answers about why their schools were targeted for closure.
The spacious auditorium of South Philadelphia High School was not packed for the event, but supporters of the two schools who did attend were passionate and informed. After a PowerPoint presentation of the District facilities master plan theory of action and specific recommendations by Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd, the audience was split into two groups, one to discuss the High School for Business and Technology and the other for E.M Stanton.
SRC member Lorene Cary joined staffers from the office of capital programs to speak with the roughly 25 people who came to support Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology in a separate classroom. I stayed in the auditorium to hear the dialogue about E.M. Stanton.
Clad in yellow
The group Supporters of Stanton has been present at SRC meetings since August, and about 50 parents, students, and community members attended on Saturday. They had marched into Southern wearing yellow and holding placards touting the school’s many years of achieving AYP, or adequate yearly progress.
This is not the first time the community has coalesced around the school. The District tried to close E.M Stanton in 2003 but backed off.
What was truly remarkable about this meeting was the relationship Supporters of Stanton has with the very people who want to close their school. For over an hour members of the group asked questions and gave their personal testimony about why the school was important to them.
“If you give us time, people will come to Stanton,” a parent of a 2nd grader at Stanton promised. “We are well positioned to be the next Meredith or Penn Alexander in the School District of Philadelphia.”
A graduate of Stanton who also has a 1st grade son in the school proclaimed that “Stanton made me what I am today. Not every school has heart, and Stanton has heart.”
A husband of one of the teachers at Stanton thanked the District leadership for the new tone between the groups. “This is a far cry from the deep, dark days of Queen Arlene,” he said, in referring to the former superintendent.
He went on to ask what the plan is for transferring the various partnerships the school has built over the years. Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery took the microphone in response, “I feel for you... culture inside the school is what matters the most... We are trying to figure out what to do.”
Not a done deal
For anyone thinking the closings are a foregone conclusion, District leaders repeated multiple times throughout the meetings the phrase “There is no deal.”
Commissioner Pritchett said it most emphatically after a community member asked if the closing of Stanton had anything to do with making way for more townhouses that are currently going up around the school. In the most genuine exchange I have witnessed between an SRC member and the public, Pritchett told the audience, “I understand, personally what you’re going through.” He explained that there are plans for Rutgers-Camden, where Pritchett is chancellor, to consolidate with other South Jersey colleges.
Pritchett concluded his comments by saying, “I really appreciate your being here; thank you for your commitment.” Floyd echoed the commissioner's view, stating, “We don’t get this kind of turnout for other schools.” Nunery and Floyd also repeatedly said “there is no deal” while fielding questions from the audience.
Over the course of the meeting it became evident that the members of Supporters of Stanton were on a first-name basis with those running the meeting. Both Nunery and Floyd commented that they had spoken with certain members earlier. Exchanges remained cordial and even warm. At the conclusion of the meeting, members of Supporters of Stanton mingled and chatted with School District personnel.
The most interesting revelation at the meeting was that the District is prepared to seriously consider facilities proposals from the schools themselves. Floyd told the audience that another school had submitted a facilities proposal of their own that the District will share with the school community at a future facilities master plan meeting. It’s encouraging that the person coordinating the process would state publicly that the District is not only taking counter-proposals from schools, but allowing the school communities to weigh the proposals for themselves at future community meetings.
After going to three previous rounds of facilities master plan meetings and being disappointed with the lack of two-way communication, I left this meeting feeling optimistic. For the first time since I’ve been active in the goings-on of the School District of Philadelphia, I felt like I was working for a first-class district. Of course, not everything has changed; we still have serious problems to fix. I do feel, however, that we have an active, thoughtful group leading the facilities plan.