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Closure opponents not satisfied with proposed changes to District plan

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Although some Philadelphia students and communities were glad to have a reprieve and felt that their voices were heard, supporters of a moratorium on school closings said that they hadn’t changed their minds as a result of Superintendent William Hite’s revised recommendations that would shutter 29 instead of 37 schools.

The updated plan only “underscores the need for a moratorium,” said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan. PFT went ahead with a rally Tuesday at Meade Elementary School in North Philadelphia to protest the closings, even though Meade was spared.

In a statement, Jordan said there are still concerns about transportation and safety and whether any savings will be reinvested “so that the receiving schools will adequately provide a quality education to...new students.”

PCAPS, the broad anti-closings coalition of which PFT is a part, said that it appreciated Hite’s effort to respond to community concerns, but “the only way to fairly and thoroughly determine which schools should close is to implement a moratorium on all closings.”

The advocacy group Action United will join several elected officials at a protest rally Wednesday afternoon in Germantown. It will be held in Vernon Park, down the street from Germantown High School and Fulton Elementary School, both slated for closing. Germantown would also lose Kinsey Elementary School.

Under the new plan, about 14,000 rather than 17,000 students will be displaced. The District will save $24.5 million instead of $28 million annually starting in 2015, which will impact its ability to reach budget balance within five years. The first-year savings will likely be less due to transition costs, which have yet to be specified.

Hite said he feels the new plan is “better” than the first one from the District’s point of view. “We have a lot fewer [students] that are moving into new schools that are lower performing,” he said.

The District reversed course in the Wynnefield section of West Philadelphia, keeping open Gompers and Overbrook elementary schools and closing Beeber Middle School instead. The original plan had been to create a K-8 school at Beeber.

The move will result in a net savings of about $600,000 compared to the earlier plan and avoid sending the younger students to a middle school that has been rated as “persistently dangerous” by the state.

“We respect the fact that parents of many Gompers and Overbrook students were concerned,” Hite said.

Staff at Beeber – which is now slated to close – are trying to digest what this means for their students.

The new plan spares the younger students from Gompers and Overbrook from being mixed in with older students at Beeber. But now the 7th and 8th graders from Beeber are expected to attend Overbrook High, which will expand from a 9-12 school to encompass grades 7-12.

Sam Reed, a Notebook blogger and teacher at Beeber, said that the staff was contemplating its next steps.

The revised plan “creates another problem,” said Reed, noting that there is limited research on how the new grade structure will benefit the younger students.

Some charter schools have had success with a 7-12 grade structure. But they carefully built up the school grade-by-grade and built a culture, Reed said.

But other students and community members said that they felt their voices were heard.

Nacier Macklin-Collins, a student at Elverson Military Academy, complained at one of the many community meetings that he wouldn’t be able to travel to a Roosevelt Middle School in Germantown. In the initial plan, Elverson and Leeds Military academies would have been combined and relocated there.

The revised plan calls for the Leeds to relocate to Elverson, which is more readily accessible through public transportation.

“I feel like my voice can be heard and it can make a difference in the School District, and it feels good to know that can happen,” said Macklin-Collins.

City Council President Darrell Clarke said he still supports a moratorium, but was heartened by the District’s revisions. The new plan spares four elementary schools in North Philadelphia, as well as Strawberry Mansion High School.

“In all honesty, I didn’t think the School District would be engaged as aggressively as they were,” Clarke said. “The staff and Hite went out every night and entertained give-and-take from the community. I was surprised that it happened.”

In deciding to keep Mansion open, officials took into account that some students had just transferred into Strawberry Mansion when Rhodes and FitzSimons high schools were closed last year.

“We didn’t want to further impact those students by moving them a second time, and in a few cases, a third time during their high school career,” Hite said.

Clarke said that he would work with the District “on any creative strategies he has for enhancing educational opportunities” for students in the area. Hite wants to partner with Community College of Philadelphia in a new "workforce development" program at Mansion modeled on one in Prince George's County, Md.

The decision to drop two schools from the list prompted State Sen. Leanna Washington of Northwest Philadelphia to praise Hite.

“The decision to keep Lankenau and McCloskey off the proposed closure list is a testament to the dedication of students, teachers, staff, and parents,” Washington said. Lankenau High School will stay in its current location in Andorra rather than co-locating with Roxborough High School. McCloskey Elementary, previously slated to close, will expand by adding grades 7 and 8.

But the most diehard opponents of closings are not mollified. City Council Education Committee Chairperson Jannie Blackwell vowed to continue fighting. 

In her West Philadelphia district, Paul Robeson High and University City High are still slated for closure. McMichael Elementary, however, was spared.

“I’m furious about the list. And I’m ready to fight about it,” Blackwell said.

In individual schools – some spared, some still targeted, and two just added to the list – staff and students are still trying to determine what the latest changes will mean for them.

Students and staff at University City High have been given the option to move en masse to Ben Franklin High and maintain its programs.

“We -- students, faculty, community-- are working on deciding how well the District's revision helps us stay unified in a way that furthers the progress we have made as a school," said social studies teacher A.J. Shiera, whose urban education students spoke at several of the community meetings.

Members of the PCAPS coalition are touting a plan to convert the buildings still slated for closure into “community learning centers” that provide an array of services, including year-round programming for youth and adults, pre-school, health services, tutoring, mentoring, and help with college access. They say that a similar network in Cincinnati, begun in  2001 when the district was renovating and expanding, has helped revitalize communities and increase the graduation rate there, which now exceeds 80 percent.

They said that they had a “productive” meeting with School Reform Commission members Tuesday morning “to discuss solutions such as community schools that can not only save and improve neighborhood public schools, but reverse the trend of school closings and student loss.”

Overall, Hite’s new set of recommendations would close 15 elementary schools, 5 middle schools, and 9 high schools. That increases the utilization rate of District buildings from 67 percent to 78 percent. For elementary schools, it will rise from 77 to 83 percent; middle schools, 46 to 71 percent, and high schools, 58 to 71 percent.

The SRC is scheduled to hold hearings this Thursday, Friday and Saturday and has scheduled a vote for March 7 on the revised plans, except for the new closure recommendations for Beeber Middle School and M.H. Stanton Elementary. Hearings and a vote on those two schools have not yet been set.

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.

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