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A school's value cannot be so easily calculated

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Superintendent William Hite has changed a flawed school-closings plan, and the revision was an encouraging sign. Hearing the concerns and suggestions of individual school communities was exactly what Dr. Hite needed to do in order to demonstrate that he is pursuing a school reform agenda responsive to the best interests and needs of city neighborhoods. It is time that the members of the School Reform Commission do the same.

To fully grasp the impact that a school has on the children it serves, one must first understand the neighborhood where those children live. A school is not an island. It is part of the social web of a community. With schools operating in economically distressed areas, they can, and often do, serve as beacons of hope. They are lighthouses, so they shouldn’t be judged in the same way as other institutions.

Meade Elementary at 18th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia, a school where I was once principal, acts as a vital part of the community. That did not stop District officials from putting it on the original closure list. Although it was subsequently taken off the list, we still aren't sure how officials calculated its value in reversing their decision. So let me do that for you.

At present, Meade provides good instruction, offers a wide array of other services like parent outreach programs and a health clinic, and partners with many area organizations. But this was not always the case.

In the early '90s, the neighborhood surrounding Meade laid in shambles. The housing stock was substandard. Drug dealers occupied many of the street corners. Gun violence was rampant. Crumbling, abandoned properties, empty, garbage-strewn lots, and graffiti-marred walls could be found everywhere. It was a place people wanted to escape from, but they lacked the means to do so.

Much has changed since those rock-bottom days. A focused renewal process transformed the long-struggling area, reshaping the streetscape of the neighborhood. Over the course of the last 20 years, hundreds of new homes were built in the area surrounding Meade. A consortium of organizations, formed by developer Beech Interplex, worked together to create programs using a holistic approach to community development. 

As the group’s elementary school partner, Meade has held up its part in helping to change its neighborhood. From 1998 to 2010, the teachers, parents, and students of Meade worked diligently to transform their school from a neglected, underperforming preK-4 building into a well-functioning preK-8 school. During this transition, the staff created a safe, purposeful, and engaging learning environment for all students. 

In 2010, changes in School District leadership led to Meade's designation as an Empowerment School, due to lagging test scores. The staff was forced to abandon best practices that had worked for their students in favor of a scripted teaching plan. The consequence of this decision hurt the school immensely over the last three years. 

Meade is not the only school in the Philadelphia School District that has formed powerful and productive partnerships with faith-based partners, neighborhood groups, and a variety of other business and nonprofit organizations. And, like many other schools, it has been unfairly disrupted by top-down administrative directives issued by a succession of quickly changing CEOs and superintendents. These schools add value to their respected communities. They make it clear that a school can be a place far greater than the sum of the “seats” in its classrooms. 

If the SRC members are committed to making truly informed decisions concerning the closure of District schools, they need to examine a broad range of factors regarding the targeted schools. They shouldn’t rely solely on flawed spreadsheets that show questionable facility usage information and limited standardized test data. They need to take a close look under the hoods of the affected neighborhoods in order to get a realistic view of how targeted schools contribute to powering the social and economic engines of their local communities. Only by making such a comprehensive review will the members of the SRC be able to truly determine how vital a school is. To do so will take more time than a few days of deliberation.

Instead, the SRC should postpone for a year any school-closing decisions. Placing a year-long moratorium on the closure plan will provide the opportunity to really study the effects of leaving wide swaths of residential areas devoid of public schools. It will also provide school communities the time necessary to develop a comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of their importance as anchor institutions in their neighborhoods.

Frank Murphy is the former principal of Gen. George G. Meade Elementary in North Philadelphia and served as an educator for over 35 years. He nows works as a distributed leadership coach for the Penn Leadership Center. He blogs at City School Stories.


The opinions expressed in this post are solely the opinions of the author. 

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