Hundreds of parents, students and teachers came directly to the School Reform Commission on Thursday night to noisily challenge the District's plans to close 37 schools and reconfigure many more.
Carrying signs, chanting, shouting and interrupting, the overflow crowd made it difficult for the SRC to conduct business. More than 80 people signed up to speak, almost all to argue on behalf of individual schools and many to demand a one-year moratorium on any closings.
But when directly asked by one speaker to comment, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said, "I'd be lying if I said a moratorium was in any way feasible without doing more harm to the District academically."
The SRC heard from students, parents, grandparents, religious leaders, community members, university professors and graduates. Anger filled the room. The SRC members and Superintendent William Hite for the most part listened quietly, only occasionally responding.
The principal of Ferguson Elementary, Carol Williams, said the recommendations to close her North Philadelphia school did not take into account that hundreds of units of new housing were being built in the neighborhood. Teachers and parents from Pepper Middle School invoked the partnership with the nearby John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and "environmental education that exists nowhere else in Philadelphia."
Teachers and parents challenged the decision to close Strawberry Mansion High, which one called "the only public high school left in North Philadelphia." Students and alumnae from Germantown High said that the school was improving despite the 10 years of constant churn in leadership.
"The children aren't failing, the District has failed the school," said Vera Primus, the president of the Germantown High School Alumni Association.
Parents and teachers warned that this kind of disruption will be the last straw for many students already struggling to stay in school.
"For many of our students, moving to another school is a death sentence," said Strawberry Mansion teacher activist Kenesta Mack, who pointed out that many Mansion students were just reassigned there last fall after the closing of two nearby high schools. She invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying that "we need a society, a school district that can live with its conscience."
One parent directly accused the leadership of racism.
"I find these school-closings recommendations to be unsafe and not thought out properly," said activist and parent Antoine Little."I think these are downright racial. ... You tell me why 27 of 37 schools are located in African American communities. I consider that to be an issue of race and not economics."
Hite and other officials, but not all the SRC members, have been attending an ongoing series of community-based meetings to discuss the closing recommendations. But to speak directly to SRC members, people came from all over the city. They protested the recommendations and argued that the financial savings will not be worth what will be lost in terms of safety and community stability.
More than one-third of the schools on the closure list had multiple speakers on their behalf: George Washington, Ferguson, Duckrey, Fairhill, McCloskey, and Fulton elementary schools; Pepper and AMY@ Martin middle schools, Germantown, Strawberry Mansion, Carroll, and Robeson high schools, and Elverson Military Academy.
"You say we'll save $28 million while dismantling our neighborhood schools and traumatizing our children," said activist Laura Dijoles. Arguing that it appears the new schools that most students will be attending are no better than the ones they are leaving, she said, "They will be disrupted, without necessarily enriching their lives."
Chants of "Moratorium, moratorium" followed many of the speakers' comments.
There were also shouts of "Where's the mayor?" Mayor Nutter has been mostly quiet about the school-closings plan. His two appointees on the SRC, Lorene Cary and Wendell Pritchett, both will reach the end of their terms this month.
Many in the audience held signs with messages about a school or the overall plan: "Fairhill: Educating minds since 1887," "Students Parents Teachers Demand a Moratorium," "Save Pepper!" and "The District is picking on North Philly. We will fight this to make sure our kids are safe and get a good education."
As the hours wore on, the crowd thinned out, but the anger didn't. Many speakers ignored the three-minute time limit. In a lengthy and bitter attack, West Philadelphia activist Pamela Williams berated the SRC for not consulting the community before making decisions -- before declaring her love for them.
Public testimony started at 6:30 p.m. Four hours later, the SRC was still listening to speakers and had not yet voted on any of the resolutions on its agenda except for two - approving a new career and technical education plan and acting to close Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School. When the last of the speakers wrapped up at 10:35, the commission zipped through its agenda of resolutions in just five minutes.
Additional reporting by Paul Socolar.