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Time and staff are short as 23 schools prepare to close

Thousands of students and employees must be relocated by next fall.
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    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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Evynn Pendergrass had fought the good fight, appearing twice before the School Reform Commission to plead that the District not close the University City High Promise Academy, where she is a junior.

She lost. And now she must find someplace else to complete high school. 

In the wake of the 23 school closings and five relocations or mergers approved by the SRC in March, she is just one of thousands of students and District employees scrambling to sort out their options.

With nearly one in 10 buildings being shuttered, this is the largest school closing in Philadelphia’s history. Now, the District’s bare-bones central office must smooth the transition, dealing with the logistics of decommissioning some two dozen buildings -- moving libraries, equipment, furniture, everything -- while also facilitating new placements for all those students and teachers. 

Principals at the receiving schools also have a lot to tackle; citing substantial program changes, Superintendent William Hite has required 14 to reapply for their jobs. Districtwide, one in four principal jobs must be filled.

Hite said that the District has four teams of three or four people working with schools on the transition process.

“We’re asking more of staff at 440, we’re absolutely asking more of principals,” Hite acknowledged. “We all have to pick up and really manage this process so we can ensure we are ready to receive students in the fall.”

Is he confident they can do it? “It’s not ‘can,’” he said. “It must be done.” 

Chicago, also planning to close high numbers of schools, is contracting out the logistics. The District can’t afford that, Hite said.

The reassignment of students and personnel has many challenges. For instance, there are 1,825 special education students in the closing schools. Advocacy groups led by the Public Interest Law Center have written Hite asking how the District plans to assure these students’ legal rights to updated, individualized learning plans. 

“With the large number of special education students impacted, we are at a loss to determine how the District will accomplish this,” said the letter.

Fewer closings, but still a lot

Originally, Hite had proposed closing 37 schools outright and merging or relocating seven more. In the face of community outcry and political opposition, he revised his list in February, removing 10 schools from his closing recommendations but adding two others. 

Hite gave the SRC 27 closures to vote on at its March 7 meeting. The SRC closed 23 of them, including University City. The two he added are still awaiting SRC action (see box).

The bottom line: When the dust settled, 16 of the 44 schools originally targeted were left intact. 

The night of the vote was a wild and woolly scene, with hundreds of angry students, teachers, parents, and activists protesting loudly outside. Many inside District headquarters tried to prevent the meeting from starting. School police arrested 19 people, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who with others attempted to block SRC members from entering the room. As the SRC voted to close school after school, some in the crowd wept.

When the deed was done, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos called the process “heart-wrenching,” but logical in the face of scores of half-empty buildings and essential to maintaining the District’s precarious financial viability. 

But it still faces a $1 billion shortfall over the next five years. And with many old buildings still far below capacity and students still moving steadily to charter schools, this isn’t likely to be the end of it. 

For opponents, the closings represent an abandonment of a commitment to public education in Philadelphia by a mayor and governor who appoint the SRC. They pointed out national studies by the Pew Charitable Trusts showing that closings generally don’t result in immediate financial savings and better educational options, while often destabilizing neighborhoods. And they warned that closings will accelerate parental flight.

Starting the transfer process

The District has sent letters and transfer forms to students at the closing schools, describing how to secure new assignments. Elementary and middle school students were generally offered enrollment nearby, while for high school students the array of options is wider. 

The District also scheduled school meetings to answer questions and walk families through a confusing transfer form. 

University City students, vocal and visible at closing hearings in crisp uniforms, at first fought to keep their Promise Academy program intact at another location. The District then proposed that they could go as a group to Benjamin Franklin High.

But it ultimately offered students more options than were on the initial list, including School of the Future and Robeson, after that school was itself saved. Now it looks as if the Ben Franklin plan will not happen.

“The District was flexible [in providing additional options] because our kids made sure that their voices were heard,” said A.J. Schiera, a University City social studies teacher who accompanied his students, including Pendergrass, to several hearings. 

In the wake of the student pleas and persuasive arguments, two of the five commissioners, Joseph Dworetzky and Sylvia Simms, voted against closing University City. Dworetzky cited the progress the school had made as a Promise Academy.

University City’s principal Tim Stults relocated from Olympia, Wash. four years ago to lead the new Promise Academy. 
“I don’t begrudge the District’s decision,” he said. “There are real challenges in this facility.” 

All the same, he is considering his future while preparing to mothball the huge building. While that is grueling, he is more concerned about the people.

Four years, four high schools

“Obviously it’s tough when you’ve got 50-plus staff uncertain about where they’re going to be next year, whether they’ll have a position with the District, and if they do, if it’s where they’ll feel supported,” said Stults. He said he is applying for at least one of the 53 principal positions now open. 

For Pendergrass, a high-energy 17-year-old, the closings mean that she will have to find her fourth high school in four years.
She started in Motivation High in Southwest Philadelphia, was a sophomore in North Carolina when she moved to live with a relative, then returned here. As a junior she thrived at University City, where teachers understood her quirks and nurtured her ambitions to become a neurologist.

“I love this school,” she said. “I could be silly; the teachers treated me more human than I treated myself.” 

In late March, Pendergrass was among 20 students who went to check out School of the Future, which is now her first choice. “They’re saving 200 spots just for us,” she said. “The students were welcoming. I’m going to go there. It will prepare me for college.”

Students have until April 5 to submit their choices and will learn their new placements in May. 

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Dale Mezzacappa

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