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District wants to close 37 schools and relocate or reconfigure dozens more

By the Notebook on Dec 13, 2012 03:00 PM
Photo: NewsWorks

Germantown High School is one of 44 schools the District has recommended be closed or relocated.

by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

Saying the struggling Philadelphia School District is “out of time and out of options,” new Superintendent William Hite has unveiled a sweeping plan to close 37 school buildings by next fall.

All told, the District will call for 44 schools to be closed or relocated and nearly two dozen more to undergo grade changes.

Based on recent enrollment figures, roughly 17,000 children might be moving to new schools.

North Central, West, and Northwest Philadelphia would be hit particularly hard, with high-profile buildings including Strawberry Mansion, University City and Germantown high schools slated for closure.

Hite said the closings plan presents the city with tough choices – and a historic opportunity.

“At the end of this process, we believe that we will have a system that better serves all students, families, and stakeholders,” he said.

But as details of the closings leaked out earlier this week, community backlash brewed. A coalition of labor and community groups planned a protest rally at District headquarters for Thursday afternoon, and activists began lining up to denounce the plan.

Most of the displaced students will be reassigned to schools that perform no better academically than the schools being shuttered. The savings from the closures – about $28 million annually – are meaningful, but far from a game-changer.

“Is this worth the disruption of thousands of families?” asked the Rev. LeRoi Simmons of the Germantown Clergy Initiative and Parents United for Public Education.

Hite, on the job for just three months, acknowledged that the closing recommendations will cause “controversy and angst.” But he was adamant that the cash-strapped district has no choice.

“If we don’t take some of these actions now, we actually have no money to spend,” he said.

The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on the recommendations in March, after a series of public meetings and community forums that will kick off Saturday.

The case for closing schools

The School District is broke.

This year, the District borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills. Over the next five years, officials project a cumulative deficit of $1.1 billion.

If approved, the school closings would help plug that hole. Officials project that the moves would save the District roughly $28 million in personnel and maintenance costs next year, with those savings recurring in future years.

Any savings will be partially offset by millions of dollars in transition expenses and new investments in the receiving schools.

Whatever the exact figures, Hite said that eliminating wasteful spending on “empty seats” is critical to the District’s continued survival.

“If we don’t realize those savings, then we would have to find other ways to get that amount of revenue,” said Hite, citing a new round of layoffs or increased class sizes as possible alternatives.

After years of steady decline due to population shifts and the mass exodus of students to charter schools, officials want to raise the District’s “utilization rate” to about 80 percent. Only 67 percent of the seats in District-run schools are now occupied, they said.

Improving the quality of public education in the city is the other main rationale for the aggressive closings plan, Hite said. Long term, District officials say, the “rightsizing” effort will allow the District to give more money and attention to fewer schools.

In the short term, however, most of the students being displaced by the closings will end up at schools that are no better academically than their current schools. Some – including the 900 students now attending Bok Technical High, who would be reassigned to troubled South Philadelphia High – will end up at schools that perform worse.

Hite promised that the District will be “investing millions of dollars on educational program enhancements” and renovations at the schools receiving new students.

In a statement released Wednesday, activist group Parents United for Public Education preemptively blasted the plan.

“National studies have shown that districts do not improve academically or financially though mass closings,” reads the statement. “The [Philadelphia] District has failed to demonstrate what it will do differently from other cities to address those concerns.”

A massive jigsaw puzzle

The scope of the proposed changes is dizzying.

All told, buildings housing 21 elementary schools, 11 high schools, and five middle schools would be shuttered.

That’s the easy part.

In some cases, the administrative staff and academic program in a closed building would be disbanded; in others, staff and programs would be moved into a new building. In a few instances, select programs or academies would be spared and relocated; the career and technical programs at Bok, for example, would be relocated into South Philadelphia High.

The District also wants to create four new K-8 elementary schools. Each would involve a complicated series of moves.

In North Philadelphia, for example, the district would close Vaux Promise Academy, a high school, and send the school’s 278 current students to other high schools. Then, the District would close Meade and Reynolds Elementary schools, both of which are nearby. The 735 children currently attending those schools would be reassigned to a newly created Vaux Elementary School. To compensate for the closing of Vaux High’s academic program, a new Promise Academy would be created elsewhere in North Philadelphia.

Got it?

There’s more.

One school, Motivation High in Southwest Philadelphia, would be moved wholesale into a vacated middle school building.

Two other high schools – Communications Technology and Robeson – would be folded back into neighborhood high schools (Bartram and Sayre, respectively) to operate as academies.

And three schools would be “co-located” inside of existing buildings. In one example, Lankenau High would start sharing space inside Roxborough High. Both schools would retain their current administrations and academic programs.

In addition to the closings and relocations, 22 schools would undergo grade changes.

In Northwest Philadelphia, for example, F.S. Edmonds, Pennypacker, Emlen, J.B. Kelly, and Wister Elementary schools would all lose their 6th grades and become K-5 schools. Those changes are part of a complex series of reorganizations that includes a merger and relocation of the city’s two military-themed high schools. This merged operation would be housed at the current Roosevelt Middle School, which has been targeted for closure.

Hite acknowledged the potential for widespread confusion.

“We have no doubts that this announcement will likely spark tremendous controversy, angst, emotion, and concern,” he said. “Most importantly parents and students may be unconvinced that such drastic measures are necessary.”

Hite said the District has already begun troubleshooting potential problems. He said officials would emphasize safe school environments and safe routes to and from school as part of its transition planning.

What’s next?

Some activists criticized the lack of transparency in the District’s process for arriving at the proposed closings.

“I resent the fact they didn’t have any conversations with the stakeholders in the community,” said Simmons, who has provided support services to students at Germantown High for a decade.

“It doesn’t seem the School District cares. They’re looking at figures on a piece of paper.”

Others reiterated their concern that outside consultants from the Boston Consulting Group, paid for with private dollars, exerted undue influence over the selection process.

“BCG has had unprecedented access to building information, financial data, and high level decision makers while parents have had to settle for limited information in public forums,” reads the statement from Parents United, one of the groups that filed an ethics complaint last week over BCG’s role in the district.

Over the coming weeks, District leaders and members of the School Reform Commission are certain to keep getting an earful.

Beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at South Philadelphia High, Hite will present the plan directly to the public at a series of four community meetings. And starting in January, District staff will also host a series of 16 community forums to gather feedback on specific recommendations.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said, “There’s a chance we could reconsider” some of the proposed closings. But Kihn narrowed that window almost as quickly as he opened it.

“We’ve gone through an elaborate process here. The intent is not to change the recommendations,” he said.

Last year, the SRC ultimately approved eight of the 10 school closings recommended by District officials.

The commission has already waived a portion of the Pennsylvania school code, allowing for an expedited vote on the recommendations.

This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.



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Comments (53)

Submitted by SOS 60 on December 13, 2012 3:44 pm
Ben, could you post or publish these specifics or can you in the near term? "Most of the displaced students will be reassigned to schools that perform no better academically than the schools being shuttered."
Submitted by Benjamin Herold on December 13, 2012 4:04 pm


Will do.  We don't have a recommendation-by-recommendation analysis yet.  Here's what Paul Kihn said yesterday:

"The vast majority of students are going to schools that are basically the same performance as their current school.  There is a number of students who are going to better performing schools.  And there is a small number of students who are going to go to schools that are currently lower-performing."



Submitted by SOS 60 on December 13, 2012 4:07 pm
Thanks, Ben, will look forward to that list.
Submitted by Benjamin Herold on December 13, 2012 5:45 pm

The District has posted some information online:

Would love to hear from readers about what you find in there.

Submitted by SOS 60 on December 13, 2012 6:57 pm
From my quick perusal, I don't see the performance, SPI or comparable shorthand of sending and receiving schools, but I will look more closely.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 6:34 pm
This information needs to be translated
Submitted by conchetta logan (not verified) on December 19, 2012 10:40 am
Ben this information is helpful .....Keep Up the Good Work...
Submitted by Benjamin Herold on December 19, 2012 2:38 pm

Thanks Conchetta!  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 11:19 am
I think the SRC is looking more at how many children attend that school, not its academic record.
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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 4:41 pm
if the district has space for 215,000 students, but onlly enroll 145,000 students, then they can probably close more. another question is when will they right-size the staff? they have almost 3 additional employees for every 2 teachers. that appears to be excessive.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 4:56 pm
Where and when is the meeting this Saturday?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 4:55 pm
I assume this is the first round of closings. Within the next four years, they want to close at least 30 more schools. This is just the start of the upheaval. When will more "low performing" charters be closed? There are plenty. What about the "cheating scandal" No word?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 9:36 pm
of the top 30 improved scores on state tests this year 25 were charters. of the 160 schools suffering the largest decreases in test scores, 10 were charters. these numbers are from the chart in the notebook. only two charters have been implicated in the cheating scandal. lay off the charters. charters didn't close schools. parents did whenever they had a better option. your solution is to limit better options?
Submitted by Tara (not verified) on December 13, 2012 11:56 pm
The scores for charters were calculated incorrectly and Pennsylvania has to recalculate charter school scores.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 2:03 am
read the article! the state was told to count the scores of all level within a charter school ( ex. elem, middle, hs) as one ayp score rather than break them up to make it easier to make ayp. i might even agree with that. what i am talking about iis in this issue of the notebook (pages 14+15). I'm sure you can find it. the notebook identified four area charters who have not been cleared of the charges. one is in chester, one has not action pending, and two are active (2/80). There are 53 active investigations of district schools. would you care to respond to why the haven't "right-sized" the teaching staff or why there's so much overhead?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 5:50 pm
Is this a plan to close a number of public schools then reopen them as charter schools?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 6:24 pm
That's a rhetorical question, right?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 7:09 pm
Oh No!!!!! They wouldn't do that--not until they fix the buildings so the Charter Kids get the best.
Submitted by Teachin' (not verified) on December 13, 2012 8:06 pm
Has there been any examination of the fates of the children who attended the seven schools closed this school year? Are they in a better place or the opposite. We might be able to predict theoutcome for this current crop of sacrificial la---, I mean, 17,000 school children - by learning what has become of their predicessors in the District's game of musical chairs.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on December 13, 2012 9:52 pm
It has to be done...there are outstanding bills and the bills are increasing.....some will retire, some will relocate and some will get certified to teach in other areas to make themselves more is life in this current economy
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 8:39 pm
Perhaps you have enough seniority that leaves you unscathed from all of this...otherwise you would not be saying that's "the way it is" in this economy.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on December 14, 2012 11:18 pm
Unscathed? have paid taxes to work in a building where HALF of the rooms are empty. Where the lights, locks, and fire alarms were out of order. Whre buckets are lined up down all the halls for the rust colored rain that runs from the roof to the groudn floor [four stories]. As a PFT building rep I had to write and threaten to go to the press for mold on the ground floor and 38 pot holes that grew to craters in the parking lot making teachers and staff buy new tires from riding through them. As a tax payer I was told that I need not worry in that the fire alarm was going to be fixed over the summer. I had to point out that a fire need not happen in the summer but could happen anytime. Guess what? After noting this to fire department more than12 folks from all parts of SDP came and shook my hand and did their best to smooth things over for me...fear of press noting the dire conditons in the building. I was called to a hsuh hush meeting about the black mold in my classroom lest the word get out. I also met with the health department about the possible friable asbestos in the building. You say unscathed? I hope that you never nor anyone else gets to work in a building with anybody's kids with these kinds of conditions because the money just is not there. Empty buildings also mean opportunities for students and the public to roam unattended and all sorts of events can happen.....and those events get covered up. Cuts backs and them economy hurt us all. But then I know nothing of your road that you have travelled. I hope that things are better where you are. Nonetheless, cuts will be made and despite what the SDP says, folks will lose out work.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2012 11:31 am
Like I said before, you will have enough seniority that will leave you "unscathed" from all of this. Hence, you will still be able to retain your job. Please be mindful of your insensitive comments. There will be a lot of layoffs. It is easy for you to make commentary on this because you may not be affected. However, there are many that are new to the system, and will be out of a job. So, please, unless you have any words of support or recommendations for newer teachers, try not to be so blase about "cuts going to happen". Cuts will take place, but perhaps not to you.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on December 15, 2012 8:50 pm
Dear Anonymous As I said, I have no idea of your road...any more that you know mine. You seem to need words of encouragement so I will offer the words that were given to me in the soft depression hiring freeze of the early 90swhen the economy took a tilt leaving many college ed. grads in the lurch like myself: You are looking to secure one job for one are not trying to employ everyone who has the same level of education as you so, think for yourself, be yourself and take whatever job that will get you to your goal" By the way, I have 8 friends who have less than 3 years on the job.....I am working to aid them....... Cuts will is how none prepares and then adjusts.....this might mean a career change for some...a delay or relocation...I know I dealt with all three, including loss of finances.....maybe you are not far enough along to know this but it happens and will continue to happen Pity gets nothing......effort moves one forward...
Submitted by Helen Gym on December 13, 2012 9:00 pm

For clarity, Parents United's reference to Boston Consulting Group's influence was that a narrow set of district personnel and third party individuals have had input into the school closings list while the public has had to settle for zero information in limited public forums. We are not claiming at this time that BCG controlled or influenced this current list because we simply don't know (one of the reasons we think the District should release the BCG list from the summer). 

However, we are very concerned that the district has not sought public feedback on the criteria, parameters, metrics, and consequences of school closings. Paul Kihn says" The intent is not to change the recommendations." It's quite outrageous for a small group of individuals who don't know these schools or our neighborhoods except through accounting and data figures to insist that they alone hold the knowledge base to close one in six schools without question. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2012 11:16 pm
Are there no transportation costs to get these kids to their new schools? Or is this a parent's newest nightmare?
Submitted by Ken Derstine on December 13, 2012 11:06 pm
That's not the only nightmare parents will face: Closings may worsen school violence
 from the Philadelphia Inquirer
 “Fourteen of the Philadelphia School District's most dangerous schools are among the 44 set to close or be relocated, according to an Inquirer analysis." I'm sure the Boston Consulting Group didn't see any evidence of this on the computer spreadsheets they used for this "reorgnization." Or is this "reorganization" part of why Governor Corbett is starving the public schools ($! billion cut statewide in 2011-12) while at the same time building three new (for profit) prisons (increasing the prisons budget by $700 million in 2011-2012)?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 12:13 pm
How about the transportation cost to get the parent to pick up their sick child at school? Don't forget, the school likely will not have a nurse to monitor the child who may be sick. I know a special admission high school that routinely sends sick students home on the street by themselves because the parents can't get there to pick them up. This is the new norm in a society they does not have the will to do right by their children. This dismantling of neighborhood schools is a public health crisis in the making. An outrage.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 4:21 am
The School District listed AYP as a consideration. There are schools with consistent AYP - such as AMY at James Martin - which are being moved to Penn Treaty - a school with poor AYP progress. Is Mansion being closed because the score plummeted after the cheating under Lois Mondesire ended with her tenure? The principal who orchestrated cheating at Roosevelt was rewarded by Penny Nixon by giving her Wilson Middle School. How is this fair to the current Roosevelt principal? Bok was also noted for cheating. Is this the main factor in the move? The School District has tried to ignore the cheating scandal. Wagner again was given special treatment by the School District. Is this another way for the District to ignore the cheating - by charter and District schools - and hold no one in leadership accountable?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 6:23 am
Some schools under investigation for cheating are being closed. Amy is being moved due to building structure. The principal at Roosevelt will have system seniority rights as will all the principals. Just because a building is closing, doesn't mean the staff will be laid off. The investigation is ongoing. People are still being interviewed.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 8:47 am
Is the SDP going to charterize more schools? If yes, that will also cause added disruption. It also will not save money.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 11:27 am
As a considered parent, I am flustered about the consolidations of schools, but I do understand economic struggles. My question is I have a 9th grade child who is currently attending Bok. As a parent I evaluate each of my children and based on what I think they can handle. Bok was a school that I thought was a good technical school when my son and I walked through. Being from the West Oak lane section of the city, I did and do still have reservations about him going to school in south philly, but because how the school has there expedited septa buses available, eases my worry. Now looking at the list there are no real options but send him to South Philly High or return him to his feeder school ( which we both agree was not a good option, he wanted to get away from his friends so he could study harder). What is parent to do when the school enrollment placements are already in. I have other schools in mind. Would he be able to apply to attend them?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 8:39 pm
The fact is that this has to be done. No ifs, ands or buts about it. How students are transitioned needs to be the rally cry at this point. Most of the schools on the list are drastically under-enrolled and historically low performing. I find it a tremendous waste of time to quibble about whether or not they should remain open. A better use of time would be to (a) work to develop real plans for transition, including making charters and special admit schools accept children and (b) rally collectively (SDP, SRC, Parents United, unions, etc...) to force Corbett to take money from corrections and put it into education. This could fund the transition plans and improvements for all public education programs. Let's stop celebrating the problem and get about the business of finding and implementing feasible plans. After all, failing to act decisively and proactively is what truly put the city in this quandary.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on December 14, 2012 11:27 pm
Simply put..I say AMEN to you....holding on to the past is not fixing the problem. Folks need to realize that change is going to happen and they will have to deal. One can not spend what one does not a tax payer without one child in any school system I expect my money to be better spent.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2012 8:22 am
I am so glad Penny Nixon is far away from this mess. No one can blame her for the schools selected to close. She exited stage left just in time. She's a smart woman!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 16, 2012 3:21 pm
I left the school district of Philadelphia in 1997 and have taught for 15 (this is my 16th) years in North Carolina. We have no union and no rights. I have seen good teachers fired for frivolus reasons with no recourse. None the less. Thank God for North Carolina. You get half the pay but live twice as good!
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on December 16, 2012 5:16 pm
I worked for the school district of Philadelphia with a great principal in a good school, loved going to work every day for fourteen years. I thought unions were for some people, but not for people "like me". I then was blindsided by a politically connected new principal who was inexperienced and insecure. She spent the year torturing me for reasons I do not understand to this day. I came out of the experience stronger, with an improved understanding of the need for unions. I hope your streak of luck continues and you do not have to go through an experience like mine. Living well can end abruptly with the loss of a job.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on December 16, 2012 9:04 pm
which is why we need unions....yes, we have those people who "get over" but for those doing the right thing to be put under the thumb of principals who think that they can do or say anything to anyone is a dangerous may not be often but once is more than enough if you or a friend happens to be the person picked upon for frivoous reasons.
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