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Next steps in facilities master plan?




Somewhat lost in the jubilation last week when the School Reform Commission decided to save Stanton and Sheppard elementary schools were clear warnings that many more school closures are in the offing – and soon.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun, who joined the SRC a year after work on the  facilities master plan started in earnest, pointed out that when planners first started estimating "what kind of contraction in facilities might be required, the scope was four or five dozen buildings, four or five dozen schools. That is still, I have to say, a realistic view of what we need to accomplish in the next two or three years, if not sooner."

Later, she qualified her comment about the numbers of schools involved.

Houstoun was apparently referring to a draft report that never was released, but was obtained last June and published by the Notebook.

The recommendations in this document are complicated and involve a combination of moves, including closure, consolidation, changes in grade configurations, and moving schools from one building to another. It also calls for renovations, partial demolition of schools, and the building of a few new schools in overcrowded areas, especially in the Northeast.

The document and others also offer a number of alternative scenarios for SRC consideration. For instance, it recommends either closing the high-maintenance Meehan Middle School and making all the feeders K-8, or making the feeders K-5 and keeping Meehan open as a 6-8 school. Either option would require renovation or new construction.

As far as outright closures, the best count we could come up with (not including Meehan) was 30 schools that would cease to exist in any location. Last week the SRC voted to close seven of those on the list. In addition, it converted Rhodes High School to a middle school. In 2011, two schools were eliminated through consolidation.

Lori Shorr, the mayor's chief education officer, said that the SRC has to move fast.

"We've got to look at what is the next group of schools that have to close in September, 2013....we have to start the process sooner," said Shorr, referring to community engagement. "We need 10-11 months to do a good process for sure and I would imagine we'd have to start earlier than that to key up the right schools."

There are so many variables to consider, she added: charter locations, Catholic school closings, availability of career and technical education opportunities. "The goal has to be to get to 85 percent capacity while also trying to make sure that any excellent academic programs are well served by the remaining infrastructure," Shorr said.

She said closing 40 buildings, "including the ones we closed this year," is "not unreasonable."

Facing monumental deficits, aging facilities, and the continued growth of charter schools, the SRC clearly telegraphed the urgency of its "rightsizing" initiative and its determination to move forward with school closures, no matter how painful they may be.

"We will need to consider proposals to alter academic programs and close facilities," said Commissioner Wendell Pritchett. "We need to do this because we continue to have too many facilities that are too old to support a modern academic program."

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky said that "no healthy organization can exist without analyzing how it uses its facilities."

Pritchett also said that even Stanton and Sheppard, which were saved due to passionate community support and the strength of their academic programs, will need to move soon.

"I believe we must close these facilities in the near future," Pritchett said. But he added that "we must first have clear plans to maintain the strengths of their academic programs in other district facilities."

Although the Stanton and Sheppard situations drove home the need to pay more attention to the schools' community ties and academic records, they also raised questions about the delicate relationship between a school and its building.

"An important take-away from this process ... is the distinction between the building and the school," Dworetzky said. "The way I've come to understand it, the school is the web of relationships between the students, teachers and programs that are offered in a physical space. It is distinct from the building, but if you move the program from the building, it may be harmful to that relationship."

For now, he and the other commissioners opted to "do no harm."

Whether that vow can be maintained moving forward is something the SRC and its staff are still trying to figure out.

Houstoun said in an email exchange after the meeting that her "four or five dozen" figure of closings was her best recollection and wasn't precise. But she also reiterated that many more school closings are necessary, and the sooner the better.

"Facilities represent capital as well as operating costs, and they have to be in the equation if we are to achieve sustainable, quality educational offerings in safe, well-maintained buildings," she said. "It will require a lot of staff work, community engagement, and analysis of alternative scenarios before we move into a new cycle. The speed is yet to be determined, but I don't think we do schools – children, families and staff, or neighborhoods – much good with a process which leaves them with uncertainty for extended periods of time."

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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.