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At high schools targeted for closing, fears of college dreams deferred

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by Bill Hangley Jr.

Students, community advocates, and Philadelphia School District officials agree: Closing high schools this year will make getting into college even tougher than usual for next year’s seniors.

“I want to go to college, and I’d have to meet all new counselors, all new teachers,” said Keith Harmon, a junior at Germantown High. “I have to get my letters of recommendation, [and] I wouldn’t really know nobody. I wouldn’t know who to go to.”

Harmon’s classmate, Quinisa Powell, put it more simply. “It will be hard to start all over,” she said.

And although a new report endorsed by some prominent city educators proposes to solve the problem by keeping those high schools open, District officials say that’s impossible.

Instead, they say that next year, it will be up to staff at receiving schools to guide transferring students through what is sure to be a challenging college application process.

“The only thing I can say that is specific is to make sure the kids have access to counselors,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard.

But Gallard added that there is as yet no commitment to hire more counselors to help the new students at receiving schools.

The new report, released last week by Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church after a series of community meetings, recommends canceling plans for high school closures. It was put together by a group that includes former District administrators and a former chair of the School Reform Commission.

“Transferring students during this time of their life would certainly add to their sense of instability and remove them from any meaningful support systems that have been established within their current high school environment,” the report says.

Enon’s report also reiterates the church’s oft-stated concerns about the District’s “top-down” approach to reform. It suggests a number of changes to school-closure policies, including new laws requiring community engagement and extensive data-sharing related to proposed closures.

“It is noteworthy that stakeholders have only recently been given the opportunity to provide input that will assist in shaping the district's long-term facility vision,” the report says.

Gallard praised Enon for its “tremendous work” and said that although closures can’t be stopped due to pressing financial needs, officials are reviewing all of Enon’s recommendations.

He said that the report was correct to highlight the challenges that closures pose for this year’s juniors. That’s “one piece of information that we’re appreciative of,” Gallard said. “We are going to be very particular at responding and building some supports for those students.”

Gallard said that school-by-school plans now being prepared will address transition issues in more detail. But with the financial savings from closings dependent on lower levels of school-based staffing, Gallard couldn’t say whether the District plans any increases in the number of counselors.

“It’s too early to say at this point -- I really don’t have any specifics on what the numbers of counselors should be,” Gallard said.

Enon, a 15,000-member church based in Northwest Philadelphia, has been active throughout the recent school-closing process, independently organizing more than two dozen community meetings to discuss specific school and neighborhood issues. Its report is endorsed by a nine-member “education committee” that includes former School Reform Commission chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, former senior District administrator Cassandra Jones, and principal Christine Wiggins of Imhotep Institute Charter High School.

It was prepared by Jones’ consulting firm, Next Step Associates. The report notes that “convincing reasons for closing schools do exist,” and that it is “unrealistic” to expect every school to stay open, but adds that closings will be easier and more effective if “various constituencies” are part of “the engagement process.”

At a recent Enon-sponsored meeting at Germantown High, students familiar with the college application process said that this year’s juniors will face an uphill climb next year, when they find themselves surrounded by unfamiliar peers and adults.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Aliyah Muhammad, a senior now preparing her college applications. “They have to build a new relationship with different teachers, staff members, even students. ... You get used to having your friends around you, and you build a relationship with them. They motivate you to get higher.

“If you switch [students] to a new environment they don’t know – their self-esteem, their social skills, will decrease.”

Muhammad credits Germantown with helping her build what she hopes are strong applications, featuring work with the school’s culinary and mentoring programs, and internships and community service arranged through Germantown’s Student Success Center (which is slated to close along with the school). This year’s juniors will face a steeper path getting faculty recommendations and connections to internships and programs, she said.

“It’s hard for someone to give a good word for you, if they don’t know you,” said Muhammad.

Muhammad was one of about 200 people who came to Enon’s Germantown meeting, where principal Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi told the lively audience that nothing was more damaging to student success than instability.

“If you understand education, you know what students need is a consistent program,” she said. “They need to have the same staff. They need to have the same administrators. They need to have the same kind of program.”

The meeting was moderated by a longtime education advocate, the Rev. Leroi Simmons of Germantown. Closing high schools will be “devastating, especially to the juniors,” Simmons said. “Looking at the other six cities that have had closures like this, one of the things that was universal was that … when it was announced, test scores went down. [Students] got very discouraged. Even when they got to the new school, many of them dropped out. … When you devastate them like that, they don’t recover.”

Senior class president Khayriyyah Williams delivered a speech praising Germantown’s teachers and programs, telling the audience that keeping the school open would “keep the promise” and “relieve a feeling of confusion and fear as we wrap up the current school year … underclassmen should have the opportunity to graduate from Germantown, together with their class.”

Later, Williams said she felt strongly that the District’s closure plans could well cost some current juniors their shot at college. “Doing a senior project, being around people they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to be a senior in a new environment,” she said. The challenge of dealing with new adults will be compounded by the stress and distraction posed new and potentially hostile fellow students. “Roxborough and King, they’re [Germantown’s] rival schools,” she said. “They fight every day.”

Simmons and others at Enon’s Germantown meeting urged the school’s supporters to fight to keep it open -- a message that sophomore Moniesha Griggs took to heart. “I feel like they’re making a big mistake,” she said of the District. “They’re not looking at the history, they’re not looking at the dangers, how much money it can take to better the school.”

But Gallard said later that although the District could make some changes to its closure recommendations, taking all high schools off the list is impossible.

“Our position is, we must do this, this year,” he said. “So we are going to move forward with our recommendations for some high school closures.”

In addition to raising concerns about college-bound students, Enon’s report calls on the District to fully explain the rationale behind its closure decisions, and calls for changes in law and policy to allow more community engagement in current and future closures.  It calls on the District to provide more data about capital needs, plans for specific schools, and strategies for ensuring “program equity” (i.e. the equal distribution of extracurricular and academic programs) in the wake of closures.

“No evidence has been made available that additional analysis was conducted in regards to [these] three critical components,” despite a 2011 promise to do so, the report says.

District officials say they’ll be reviewing those recommendations but don’t yet have a formal position. They expect a follow-up report from Enon with some school-by school suggestions this week. “We appreciate the report,” said Gallard. “We are waiting for the second part.”

That leaves students like Griggs hoping for helpful action from the District, but right now, the sophomore is not optimistic. “They’re talking a lot, but they’re not doing a lot,” she said.

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